The ‘Rub’ in Rubbish

This will be one of the worst literary criticisms of all time in that I will not mention the title or themes of the book, nor make any reference to the plot, characters or quality of prose. All it prompts me to do is extend a swift knifestroke into the worst excesses of what tends to be called postmodernism.

Postmodernism is as ill-defined as most concepts, but insofar as it has a common usage it is typically used to suggest either a degeneration from commonly held social or conceptual strictures, or a freedom from very much the same, depending on one’s reaction to it. Of course, people being by nature coarse-grained, in both cases it often amounts to the same thing, which is that anything can be justified, for reasons which may be merely local, inconsistent, or absent.

But social and conceptual strictures are not things to be understood as real, at some temporal points, and mere constructs after another point. They can be wrongly understood as real, or correctly understood as always being and having been constructs. On the correct understanding, postmodernism (or the realisation of that constructed nature) is not a further freedom or degeneration of anything, and so is not the excuse or provocation to offer insights or behaviour designed largely to show a commitment to shrugging off that nature. Some minor reflection on how consistently this ostensibly emancipated behaviour seems to derive its savour only in comparison with the ostensibly discarded strictures will show how dismally most manage to travel along this road. A great deal of postmodernism puts one in mind of nothing so much as children with an intimation of the lie of adult authority.

And so the ever present themes within postmodern thought tend to be overwhelming childish and vacuous. The idea that anything can be rendered free from criticism. That relativism, to go even further, means that criticism or evaluation cannot be justified, and that all viewpoints are equally valid. If the view was that all viewpoints have zero validity, that would at least be approaching a worthwhile point, but that is not the tone typically set. And the most childish impulse of all: that value (ill-defined conceptions of value, remember, since we have no normative standards of value) is to be found in transgression. It is a point touched on in the last paragraph and worth echoing: to find value in transgressing concepts and strictures one is contending are empty or invalid is simply to have failed to understand.

This poor understanding. This unrecognised commitment to the merely puerile. This infantile inability to comprehend that a worthwhile realisation of the proper nature of constructed reality involves the endeavour of each and every participant to be the source, the engineer, the artist, and the judge of all things. This is what renders so much of postmodernism ugly and empty.

And oh yes, there was a book. One as valid and worthwhile as anything.

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Appendix Cited

As a slight corollary to the last post, one further development of the main thought merits mention. It isn’t uncommon for many people to have some inkling that every custom, every faith, every truth is mere convention, mere habit. The Roman philosopher Lucretius stated it well on a matter of faith when he pointed out that anthropomorphic gods tended to resemble the people who revered them. The invitation as to which invented which is ambiguous, at least out of context.

Then, as now, the point is not widely received in many quarters. Even amongst those who suspect quite strongly that all is mere convention or, more accurately, lies, the tendency is to present those lies as necessary. I have even heard of cases where atheists prompted their offspring to cultivate faith, as if their own position was a lack (though this may be propaganda, or so my own will-to-lies demands).

The modern formulation which I encounter is in the form ‘if god does not exist, then everything is permitted’. This is always a warning. It is the pithy pith of the fear people have. And fear is perhaps understandable, for if all is identified as convention and all of our edifices of history and society are laid bare as being far more threadbare and ephemeral than each and every one of us, we can feel exposed. To stand in a cathedral, spirit bowed under the cyclopean stones mortared in blood and time, and realise it has no greater justification, no wider meaning or significance than oneself, can be an upending thought.

But in conversation and argument this is not the fear I encounter. What I encounter is the tenebrous subtext of ‘everything is permitted’. The idea that without the truth of convention, without the weight of time, history, custom and its attendant donors of reward and punishment, people will do as they please. And the next step… what they please is always understood to be worse. This is why even those suspecting the truth of the absence of truth continue to value lies. They look at themselves, and others, and can only imagine that, shorn of the chains, all they would manage is degeneracy and destruction.

This is why I offer little comfort to those who would find fear in this. It is not a question of being daunted before a new and astonishingly open world, but of being so unable to imagine taking to that world intent on making a life, a being, an example, an argument, a disputation of exactly what it means to be unburdened by the fears, prejudices, and baggage trains of accumulated history. To fear the meaningless of a zufallig existence, especially to fear it as nothing but an invitation to the basest natures within ourselves, is to betray only a lack in oneself. A lack of any capability to wonder, create and affirm. And especially of an infantile inability to step out of the sandbox and make one’s own way.

Perhaps that is harsh. We do, after all, have thousands of years, and billions of people grinding us into those prejudiced shapes. Institutions and social conventions exist to shame and humiliate people if they differ or choose apostasy. All the more reason, though, that one should want to break free.

In Whining, Veritas

Truth is an odd concept in philosophy. A famous film has the line ‘archaeology is the search for facts; if you’re after truth, Prof. [whoever]’s philosophy class is down the hall’. Amusing. And interesting, if only for the sharp implication that facts and truth are so obviously distinct.

At least, some philosophers may find that interesting. Some philosophers do, or have, troubled themselves with theories of what truth may be. There are, for example, correspondence theories of truth, which generally hold that statement A about x is true if statement A’s claims match the worldly state or whatever of x. For example my statement that I failed to rotate the dolphin this morning is true if the dolphin was not rotated that morning by me. Alternatively it is false if I perhaps gyrated the dolphin, or spent my time that morning rotating something else. Generally this approach is a) valid, b) correct and c) utterly pointless. If, in real life or philosophical musing, you are sufficiently lost that you need to think about this variety of truth then you need a handler, not a theory.

Things become more interesting, potentially more useful, but often very confused when other varieties of truth are spoken of. Not least because on contrast to much philosophical work not a great deal of effort goes into keeping them distinct. For example it is entirely true that nothing is True. I won’t devote much time to pointing out that all systems of belief (for it is there where capital letters threaten us with such Platonically sinister intent) are untrue. Or, more accurately, unTrue. More interesting philosophers have written much about the idea of Truth as in some way transcending the utterly mundane correspondence type truth above being entirely vacuous. That in some way beliefs, belief systems, exist or inhere in some sense beyond their being contingently hosted by at least one person. This is rarely given much explicit treatment, but it is utterly endemic among people, and codified by philosophers and theologians. Religion, culture, morality, justice, virtue, superstition, meaning – they are all grand codifications which are endlessly touted as cause for this or that.

To be mildly circular, it isn’t true, of course. Grind the universe to powder and no particle of truth or belief will be found. Reset the species and new contingent truths will arise, as firmly held and immutable in the eyes of people as the present ones are. All Truths are false, and they are all as false as each other.

The most interesting philosopher, who also never felt trivial, and yet true, correspondence truth was worth mentioning, and who also knew all Truths are false, nevertheless considered that all false Truth was not all equal. Some lies – like virtue – can be beautiful. Or so I say. Some – like religion – can be demeaning and infinitely perverse. That philosopher was probably kinder than I. He didn’t much begrudge some who needed to lie to themselves to get by. Not many possess anything like the strength or (pause for laughs) honesty to encompass the lies for what they are and live without delusion. Or, more on topic, not many possess the type of nature which can truly recognise all human custom and structure as calumny and yet steer a valid course.

Some might even wonder if a topic written with such disdain for Truth was really meant in any serious fashion.