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The marginalisation of critical rationalism

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Yesterday I gave some credit to Margaret Sankey for providing a useful summary of some aspects of postmodernism, especially the way that it can be seen as a response to the failure of those “foundationist” theories that depended on the justification of belief by observation or reason. However it is not the ONLY response that is available because there is also Critical Rationalism, associated with the name of Popper and others, including Hayek in some of his moods.

This school of thought has been marginalised, both in the mainstream of traditional philosophy and in the brave new world of postmodernism. Why have the devotees of postmodernism paid no attention to a line of thought that responds to the same problem situation in a wide range of contexts from philosophy of science to politics, in plain English that is readily accessible to any interested reader?

Leaving that question for the moment, to examine some more of the Sankey essay and unpack some more of the contents of the postmodern bundle of ideas.

Postmodernism is first of all a category to describe critiques and reactions, cultural, political and social, against the central tenets of monolithic modernism.

The word “postmodern” came into common usage relatively late in the piece, and referred to past as well as present reactions to, and critiques of, modernism from the 1960s onwards. Sometimes the term was used pejoratively, but mostly it was used as an attempt to delineate a new kind of Weltanschauung, challenging the modernist paradigm.

It then became current in the 1960s to refer to the approach in many fields of artistic endeavour. It focussed on different things in different places. In the arts, increasing and widespread self-referentiality signalled a lack of confidence in, and a refusal of, the authoritative authorial voice: the Absurdist aesthetic, the French nouveau roman in France can be grouped under the postmodern label.

The shaking of the modernist foundations of our culture and society paved the way for postmodern criticism in the arts and literature and brought into question the dichotomies of high and low culture, high and popular literature, classical and pop art.

Who speaks of the dichotomies of high and low culture, high and popular literature, classical and pop art? This is a postmodern turn of phrase that is apparently designed to belittle the traditionalists who are supposed to believe in the (silly, old fashioned) dichotomies. A couple of correctives to that simplistic view: first it was not the postmoderns who first paid scholarly attention to the lowbrow texts that achieved popular readership – this was being done by Queenie Leavis (Fiction and the Reading Public, 1932) and Denys Thompson (Discrimination and Popular Culture) long before the postmoderns appeared. Second, reasonable conservatives simply point out that great works have more to offer than minor works, although this does not mean that minor works are unworthy of a readership.

This very point was made by Sankey herself, in language that stands as a reproach to a great deal of relativistic twaddle that is talked by devotees of postmodernism in their more careless moments.

This is not, of course, to say that anything goes: that some readings are not more correct and coherent than others in relation to the content of the text being analysed; that some texts are not more rich in meaning than others; that the choice of text in a syllabus should be chosen because it belongs to the traditional canon rather than because it relates to the world of the young reader. It simply means that texts invite a plurality of readings and approaches, and that texts should be chosen for their appropriateness to the student, linking the world he or she knows to the discovery other worlds.

Sankey has some careless moments of her own, for example in her comment on science and technology leading to wars, and the strange juxtaposition of talk about women, non-Europeans and colonised peoples

The unassailability of the grand modernist narratives has been becoming increasingly untenable in a world where science and technology have led to wars of a scope unimaginable for the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, where the dominant voice, given as a universal, comes to be recognised for what it is: the privileged voice of a white European male, affirming itself by excluding those other voices: women, non-Europeans, colonised peoples.

She writes that “Interpretation is always ideological” but this is not a fact (remember the death of foundations), it is a theory, and a dangerous theory as well, lending itself to abuse by ideological birds of prey. It is also a false theory, although it would take a separate essay to establish that it is possible to interpret works by any number of criteria (remember the pluralism of the modern world) and some of those critera may be ideological while others are not.

Poststructuralism, reacting against the excesses and ultimate sterility of literary structuralism, with its evacuation of the author, history and context, is a particular French manifestation of the postmodern. Michel Foucault demonstrates that language is power and that it is the discursive formations that speak the subject rather than the subject controlling language.

For a rejoinder to this, refer to the relevant chapter in Freadman and Miller.

Likewise deconstruction, associated with the names of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, acutely focusses on the crisis in representation, the loss of confidence in the triumphal Enlightment discourse. Language, rather than being referential, can be seen as an infinite regression of the sign, creating a deferral and fragmentation of meaning. Representation becomes, then, a space where other voices can be heard, the black as well as the white, the colonised as well as the coloniser, women as well as men. All languages become legitimate in this pluralised and politicised space of representation.

This sound very much like the notion of anything goes that was repudiated above.

Whatever we think of it, the fragmented, fractured world of postmodernism with its post-colonialism and poststructuralism, the polyphony of its voices, is the one in which we live.

Who can deny that, but what follows from it?

What lessons can we take from this for English literature teaching in Australian high schools?

During the recent debates, a letter written by a high school English teacher and published in one of the daily newspapers, shed illuminating light on the rationale for the so-called “postmodern” syllabus. She made the point that the English syllabus is now a much more complex beast than it had been a generation ago, and this complexity comes from the attempt to come to grips with the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of the modern world. Where once Shakespeare was taught as a written text only, she said, now students learn to analyse the different stagings of the play. Each production is an interpretation, be it a feminist, post-colonialist, or simply “traditional” one, and unpicking the relationship between these and their relevance to the text needs expert guidance and the honing of students’ analytical skills. It teaches them to understand and evaluate critically the relevance of culture to the world in which they live.

What sort of expert guidance can be provided by people who have surrendered their critical faculties to the body of theories subjected to criticism by Freadman and Miller? And Rene Wellek.

And should we teach students to analyse pop as well as high culture? Of course – in the postmodern world there is no place for right choices of texts, nor for authoritative and authoritarian “right” readings.

Even in the postmodern world there is a place for some choices that are better than others unless you revert to the notion that anyting goes . If you abandon “anything goes”,as Sankey did at least for a moment, then there is plenty of scope for limiting the amount of time that is devoted to pop and without being rigid or doctrinaire you can dismiss a great many readings that are defective.

One of the rhetorical devices of many postmoderns is to have things each way, to stand for critical appraisal one minute and anything goes the next, to rubbish the idea of standards and moral valuation in one breath while excoriating opponents in moralistic and ideological terms with the next.

To insist on the exclusive teaching of the “canon”, or on one interpretation of a text over the many possible others, is to champion a dogmatic approach that refuses to address our present and harks back to an authoritarian and oppressive past.

And to refuset to articulate and defend standards of performance and interpretation is to look forward to a fragmented and normless future.

It is more constructive then, especially in a debate on education, not to use “postmodern” as a term of abuse, nor as a synonym for incoherency. Whether he likes it or not, Howard is living in the postmodern world, with its uncomfortable lack of certainties. The way forward, both in education and politics, would be to confront our complex world courageously rather than to attempt to return to the reductionist, modernist dichotomies of the 1950s.

I don’t want to use the term postmodernism as a term of abuse and nor do I want other people to invoke the name of Howard as a signal that they are on the side of the angels (and the future) while people who disagree with them are silly old fuddy duddies. I would like to see the Margaret Sankeys of the world engage with the ideas of critical rationalism (and thinkers like Barzun, Wellek and Hayek) in case they offer a better platform for confronting the challenges of the future than the ideas that parade at present under the title of postmodernism. Having read widely in both schools of thought I think that critical rationalism is a robust and creative option to all the postmoderns that I have encountered to date. I look forward to to the day when the exponents of postmodernism (in its usual forms) come to grips with critical rationalism so if they choose to reject it, at least they can give reasons.

Some extracts from the Wellek piece (link above).

The monotony and predictability of the method should work against its spread. But the appeal is in the sense it gives of being “revolutionary,” dismantling, destroying without any particular political commitment; their only target seems traditional scholarship established in the literature departments of American universities. Hillis Miller, however, insists that he is not deconstructing a text, but that the text has deconstructed itself. “Deconstruction,” he says, “is not a dismantling of the structure of the text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself.” Barbara Johnson, a younger adherent, describes the method as a “careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text.”

I must admire the acumen and sometimes the learning and rational rigor with which this “teasing out” is done. However, it always comes to the same conclusion that the text is contradictory, and even paradoxical, a result that has persuaded a commentator, Michael Fischer, to conclude that deconstruction makes no difference, is simply a revival of the New Criticism in its search for paradox and irony. But the New Critics wanted to increase understanding while deconstruct-ionists try to prove its impossibility. The New Critics could not have arrived—to give an example from Hillis Miller’s reading of Goethe’s Wahlvent’andtschaften—at the conclusion that “each great work of Western literature demonstrates its self-subverting heterogeneity” and that the meaning of the novel is “in the necessity of this contradiction.” In contrast to Walter Benjamin’s mythic interpretation, Hillis Miller, boasting of his “literal” (buchstäblich) reading, sees this story of marriage, passion, and adultery as “in fact an allegory of the laws, powers, and limitations of language.”

Admitting the acumen of some of these readings, one cannot help reflect that a terrible impoverishment of literary study is being propagated. It is limited to a rhetorical analysis that does nothing else than to reveal over and over again that there is an irreconcilable contradiction in every text that leaves one in doubt, undecided, with the matter left for ever “undecidable”, their favorite catchword. Literary studies would become a specialty, a new anti-aesthetic ivory tower that would deprive literature of its human and social meaning as a representation of reality, as stimulation, admonition and simply enjoyment. It would scare off students who could not possibly see why they should devote their lives to such a negative and finally futile pursuit of dismantling, deconstructing. One can only hope that deconstruction is a passing fashion and that literary studies will continue to explore the riches of literature in the spirit of tolerance and positive appreciation. In recent decades the great variety of new, and not so new, methodologies has contributed to a deeper understanding of literature: psychoanalytical critics, students of sociology, Marxists, structuralists, semioticians, reader-response critics, feminist critics, comparatists, and others have in their different ways widened our horizons. Only deconstructionism is entirely negative.


Written by Admin

June 8, 2006 at 11:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. The challenge to the canonical view of literature has been taken to an extreme equating Hamlet with the White Pages. This is obviously nonsense. But the re-examination of cultural hierarchies is surely a good thing. If the quality of the Western Canon is inherent and not merely proscribed then it will certainly stand. If not it doesn’t deserve to. The work that examines popular culture is a response to the emergence of popular culture, a modern phenomena precipitated by recording technologies and manifest in recorded music, radio, cinema, television etc.

    Prior to the modern era popular culture didn’t exist. It’s antecedent folk culture was a locally based phenomena rooted in local traditions and exported by troubadours and cultural osmosis. High culture was grounded in restricted literacy and work authorised by the Church thence the Universities.

    Go back further: in ancient Athens there was no high and low culture. Euripedes was pop culture then. He’s high culture now because someone wrote it down, because it’s old and because someone (me) still bothers.

    In the face of television, cinema and recorded music and most especially the Internet. The old reality of a minority of literate clergy, thence academics deciding cultural quality has been turned on its head. We cannot go back.

    The distinction between high and low culture is well defined by the (postmodernist) Pierre Bourdeau who posits fields of general (popular) and restricted (high) consumption. This basically means that to ‘get’ popular culture you don’t need any prior training or knowledge it’s immediately accessible. High culture isn’t. Of course this isn’t a discreet distinction, The Simpsons is accessible but often contains references requiring a degree of cultivation to ‘get’.

    Cultivated consumption includes DJs who insist on finding a remix of “Beat It” made in Vladivostok. The exercise of cultivated taste. Many might think “Beat It” remixed or otherwise is not culture. But they used to say the same thing about Jazz remember.

    Cultivation, not necessarily the search for Vladivostok remixes, is one of the primary aims of literary education. It is a component of democratic citizenship: ie to produce a thinking, critical citizen as opposed to an ideologically programmed drone. The current alarm raised by conservatives objecting to leftist education has a point but I suspect there will be an attempt simply to replace left wing ideology with that of the right. The contributions of thinkers should be included regardless their ‘political’ leaning: you cite Leavis in your attempt to show pre-postmodern scholarly work on pop culture. Fine. What about Benjamin or Williams? Are they to be excluded for digging Marx?

    Schools should teach kids how to think not what. Teaching them what to think is doomed anyway, they’ll think the opposite on general principle. As for what constitutes quality content well there I’m with the conservatives, jettison the trendy quasi-political aspects (preserve the best) and reinvestigate some of the old school methods. Thereby create something new, and better.


    January 9, 2007 at 3:08 pm

  2. Apologies for the delay with getting this up, Adrian. Your first post was in moderation.


    January 9, 2007 at 3:12 pm

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