Sunday, 14 February 2010

The problem of understanding meaning in postmodernism

Pascal Boyer's recent critique of deconstruction is worth reading. In it he challenges the often breathtaking statements of postmodern thought, claiming that these represent an elaborate bait-and-switch intended to ostentatiously cause shock while in fact masking a profound lack of meaningful claim.

I have sympathy with his attack and feel that these criticisms should be heard by those who jump eagerly onto the confrontational bandwagon of postmodernism. The reason I fel this is because they make the same mistake as Boyer. Thus, Boyer serves to highlight an easy and all too common misunderstanding, committed by advocates and enemies alike.

The interesting problem here is that Boyer's central argument - that postmodernist claims never mean what they say - is correct. Postmodernism should never be taken literally, for this is not its aim. Postmodernism seeks to disrupt the priveliging of literalist interpretations of reality; it attempts to disfigure that which claims a single truth which overrides the individual, and instead re-empower the human being or human consciousness over and above the material truths of science. The mistake comes when its own claims are understood as having the same meaning as those scientific truths. For, the attempt is not to dislodge and replace a literalist materialism with a different system. Rather, the attempt is to provide an alternative which can sit alongside the literalist convention, contrasting with it without the need to ascribe one or the other the sole criterion of value.

Lacan's statements that there is no such thing as sexual intercourse, or that the challenge to women is that they are not, should obviously be heard as metaphors which instigate a new appreciation of the categories society gives us, and a questioning of the relationships with people, events and objects which we tend to fall into (and even: the ideas we have of ourselves). If this is obvious for the kind of things Lacan says, it is more difficult to grasp in the case of other thinkers; and I have cause to wonder whether sometimes those thinkers themselves forget not to take their doctrines as literal statements about reality. I know I have often fallen foul of this, especially in the heat of debate.

It is a problem of dull, unsubtle thinking which can only take words as describing an objective, as-it-is world. Thinking at its most powerfully sublime, that which informs the practices of religion, art, philosophy, works precisely against this method. Instead of constructing valid descriptions of the world, it helps to dismantle invalid or constricting world-views. It allows people to question and reinvent their relation to the world, people, events and society in order to re-validate their lives.

The power of Derrida denying objective reality is lessened and devitalised when he is forced to admit that, in scientific terms, this is not correct. Both Searle and Boyer claim this as a victory, but I concur with Derrida himself that they have failed to correctly understood Derrida's project or intention. Admittedly, this failure is not a difficult one. Derrida is not talking scientifically, and should not be understood as doing so. But Searle seeks to place his thought within the scientific (which is the common-sense outlook of the 20th century west), thereby instantly negating Derrida's project by priveliging the literal description of reality over the poetic.

But we need the poetic to help us live. We need myths, we need the emotional power of new, human-centred narratives. It is my own opinion that this endeavour is what has informed the religious urge in humanity, as well as much of what we call philosophy - both the existential seeking of continental philosophy, and much of what came before. Thinkers such as Plato, the biblical prophets, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, Zarathustra, et al have sought to reconfigure the human understanding of our world and our place within it by constructing new metaphysical systems which privelige human values and ideals - of a specific kind - over the ossifying systems dominant in their own societies. I've attempted to argue several times in previous posts that religious doctrines are never meant to be understood in the same way we understand scientific claims about the world, but instead depict mythologically an approach to living which is meant to be used to enable us to live better; happily; more ethically. Therefore, these systems should be understood as a manifestation of the drive not toward literal truth, but toward authenticity as living beings.

To sum up, a quote from Keith Devlin's book I've just finished reading which I think illustrates this very well:

"In real life, who best understands a flower? The person who sees it with her own eyes, growing in the field? The photographer who chooses the best light and the best angle in order to transfer its beauty onto film? The painter who captures its subtleties on canvas? The poet who captures its beauty in words and likens it to aspects of the human condition? The blind person who perceives it by scent and touch? The musician who sees it swaying in the breeze and captures its motion in a melody? The botanist who knows how it germinates and grows? The biochemist who understands the chemical processes that keep it alive and give it colour? The biologist who knows what insects depend on the flower in order to breed and survive? The mathematician who writes down equations that describe the flower's symmetry? Surely, there is no one way to view and to understand a flower, nor even a unique 'best' way. There may be ways that are suited to a particular purpose, but that is another issue. In terms of understanding an aspect of our world, the more ways we have to understand a flower, the greater will be that understanding. The poet or the painter who remains ignorant of chemistry, biology, and mathematics is as deprived in his or her vision and understanding of the flower as the scientist who is blind to the flower's beauty."

(Goodbye Descartes, p.281)

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