George Bush, Bruno Latour and the end of postmodernism
First published at Club Troppo
For discussion: one of the far right’s greatest achievements in the past decade has been to show post-modernists how wrong they were.
Let me explain. In a famous 2004 article on the Iraq War, the New York Times journalist Ron Suskind quotes an aide to George W. Bush (possibly Karl Rove) disparaging what the aide calls “the reality-based community”:
“‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’
The quote may not be correct, and it may be that the aide was actually making the case for action over endless analysis; it isn’t as clear as Suskind paints it. But the whole quote had a post-modern ring to it, and it set me thinking about post-modernism and the right. Just eight years later, some thoroughly belated conclusions:
First, the attempt by some on the US right to push creation science into schools is a pretty textbook implementation of the postmodern philosophy of science. Specifically, it is …
… an implementation of the views of the post-modern philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend about replacing science with democracy. Feyerabend was not much of a believer in seeking “the truth”; rather, he wanted to let a thousand flowers bloom. Here’s his Wikipedia entry:
“Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society. He envisioned a ‘free society’ in which ‘all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power’. For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children’s education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be completely subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be ‘rationalistic’ is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.”
Determining scientific assumptions and conclusions by committees of ordinary people, of course, is just what the proponents of creation science are currently fighting for.
Second, the approach by some on the right to the conclusions of climate science (as distinct from choices about climate policy) can be seen as another example of right-wing post-modernism.
It was the climate science debate that drew the attention of Bruno Latour, a philosopher frequently associated with post-modernism, although he has preferred to be seen as an opponent of the very idea of modernity. Latour was one of those analysts of science so neatly skewered by Alan Sokal in 1996 in the famous “Sokal hoax“.
In 2004, Latour wrote an essay, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? Not much noticed at the time, it’s now finally available online. And it’s well worth a read, in part because Latour can actually write well when he wants to.
He started by noting that US Republicans strategists such as Frank Luntz had adopted a conscious strategy of stressing that the scientific debate on climate change was “not settled”. Latour was now unsettled to find that people with whom he disagreed were using the same attitude to truth that he himself had spent years promoting.
You don’t often see a philosopher enduring this sort of crisis:
“Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientiﬁc certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a ‘primary issue’. But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? …
“… While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this ﬁeld known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good? Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along? Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts … Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?…
“… Have we behaved like mad scientists who have let the virus of critique out of the conﬁnes of their laboratories and cannot do anything now to limit its deleterious effect?”
Latour even has in this essay a Popperian moment, when he declares the foolishness of a critical approach which is always right, no matter what happens. Instead, Latour wants a new “realist attitude”. (Sadly, he has never convincingly explained what that new realism would consist of.)
Postmodernism has been predominantly a movement of the intellectual left. For some leftists it seemed the best solution to the events of the 1980s, to the rise of democracy movements and market economics. If they couldn’t fight the reassertion of democratic principles and the mixed economy, of free expression and markets, they would wryly mock it all. If we’re to be wrong, they asserted, then we will now maintain that no-one can truly be right. The sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander, in his neglected essay “Modern, Anti, Post and Neo“, documented a process of “defeat, resignation and comic detachment” in the face of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton lampooned that left-wing defeat and resignation wickedly in the first chapter of his The Illusions of Postmodernism.
Left-wing postmodernism has been fighting reality ever since the Berlin Wall. The people who knocked down the Berlin Wall clearly did not believe that their reality was a linguistic construction. If they knew anything about Foucault’s thinking, they knew better than to take it seriously. They wanted improvement, and they knew how to get it. So did the countless individual modernisers of East Asia who transformed the lives of both themselves and hundreds of millions of their fellow human beings through the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. So did the people who brought technology to the forefront of Western thinking in the 1990s. These people all thought, in their different ways, that it was possible to make things better. The theorists who best explain such events were not Foucault, or Feyerband, or even Anthony Giddens; they were old fuddy-duddy rationalists and tinkerers and modernisers like Talcott Parsons and Karl Popper and Joseph Schumpeter.
But even the events of the late 1980s and the 1990s were not enough to doom postmodernism’s appeal to the left. What has fittingly doomed it is its embrace by elements of the right.