Monday, 27 May 2013

Finding Linguistic Tells

Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked runs annual Ideological Turing Tests in which contestants write articles espousing opinions they do not hold and readers try to distinguish between real Christians/atheists and pretend Christians/atheists. (I participate last year.) Based on the comments, it seems that a common way readers judge entries is to look for tells in word choice. Does the author use academic jargon that no Christian would likely be to know, or theological jargon that no atheist would be likely to know?

It might seem like a silly method, but there are some good theoretical reasons to think it could work. If Mikhail Bakhtin is correct, different communities of people will use language differently. Words will mean slightly (or entirely) different things depending on who the speaker is, and this suggests that they would convey the same or similar ideas using a different vocabulary. So it would seem on the surface as though word choice would be a good tell.

That being said, "atheist" and "Christian" are not homogenous communities. I presume that Maronite Catholics would have different ways of talking about religion than Mennonites would; I presume that humanities-educated atheists that are fans of Derrida or Marx would have different ways of talking about atheism than atheists without a post-secondary education who are fans of Less Wrong or The God Delusion. Furthermore, there will certainly be Christians with a post-secondary humanities education and atheists raised in a Mennonite household.

Indeed, most people on the Internet are members of multiple linguistic communities and their language will probably reflect that multiplicity. For this reason I would hypothesize that any given person will not be familiar with enough of the different language markers you would need to know to distinguish between atheist and Christian contestants on the basis of word choice. At best all you could do is tell whether a person is familiar with your own linguistic communities. However, just because any one person would be unable to use linguistic tells with any accuracy does not mean that it's a useless method. What we would need to do is to conduct a large-scale quantitative analysis of many samples (preferably, hundreds) of writing from a diversity of authors.

Ideally, we would attach a lot of meta-data to each sample: languages spoken, all countries and regions of residence (ever), education (including specializations), reading habits, political affiliations, workplaces. We would be looking to label the samples with every linguistic community the author is a member of. I don't know how to conduct such a study--in particular, I don't have access to the necessary programs--but this is the kind of thing people in the digital humanities do: track word use, syntax, etc. across numerous samples to get a large quantitative picture of a corpus.

After enough work has been done and particular words start to show up frequently (especially if certain words show up in authors with different ideological meta-data) we would also hand-code the samples according to how these words are used, something a computer program cannot do; we would create a taxonomy of use and label the samples according to that taxonomy, and run this new meta-data through the computer again to see if anything shows up. For instance, maybe two unrelated groups of people use the word "modern," but they use it in different ways.

We would be looking for two things in the resulting data. The first would be to see whether there are any reliable linguistic tells at all; is the correlation between word choice and word use high enough to be a reliable indicator, or is it too noisy? The second would be to see what those indicators (if there are any) are so that we could put together a checklist or procedure that we could use on samples. The procedure could be computerized, but since we'd be using hand-coded data we would probably be better off using a mix of computerized and hand-coded analysis.

The scope of the project is too great for me to do this, even if I did have access to the software necessary (because I might just be able to get my hands on it if I hand to). But I'd love to see the results if someone else conducted such a study.

(Of course, if you were going to use this for Leah's Turing Tests, you would be better off conducting the entire study with Turing Test samples, not just samples of people writing their own opinions.)

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Splitting Planarians

Incomplete Thoughts on Theodicy (and Complete Ones on Certain Flatworms)

Planarians are hammer-headed flatworms with unusual regenerative abilities. If you were to take a planarian and cut it in two, both ends would re-grow into a complete planarian. (The same is falsely said of earthworms. If you cut an earthworm in two, the anterior portion will re-grow a tail and the posterior portion will die; moreover, the anterior portion will only re-grow a tail if it is more than 50% of a whole worm. If the anterior portion is less than half of the worm, both parts will die.) In fact, you could chop a planarian into over a dozen pieces any which way, and most or all of the pieces would grow into new worms. (Since those pieces cannot eat until they have become new worms, they cannot gain mass, so they actually break down and rearrange the tissues in their bodies to re-form the complete worm shape as a scale miniature.) Certain species of planarians reproduce exclusively in this way: an asexual planarian detaches its tail-end, which grows into a complete planarian in its own right. Other species of planarians reproduce both sexually and asexually. Planarians can regenerate in this way because they have adult stem cells called neoblasts distributed throughout their body.

Other animals have the ability to get chopped up and then grow into numerous organisms (starfish, arguably Voldemort's soul), but planarians aren't done being amazing. Because they have such regenerative abilities, planarians recover from injuries in ways that might seem bizarre to us. If a planarian receives a cut on its body, a tiny planarian will grow from the cut, eventually breaking off on its own. If you cut a planarian's head down the middle, the right half and the left half will each grow into a separate complete head; over time, the resulting flatworms will split down the middle and be two separate individuals, but for a while they share some length of their body.

I find planarians fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is that I am fascinated by conjoined twins and polycephaly; there is something very intimate about those who share (and/or compete for) a body, but I'm also interested in how having a body that departs from unquestioned cultural assumptions about bodies changes how people conduct their lives within that culture. The second is that planarians are an interesting case in how identities persist over time; if I were to cut a planarian straight down the middle, bisecting the bi-lobed cerebral ganglia sometimes considered its brain, how would the original planarian's identity persist into the two resulting individuals? Since the organism never dies I would say that either of the resulting planarians is the same organism as the original as much as I who write these words am the same organism as the person who planned to write them a few hours ago. But does that then make them the same organism as each other? That makes no sense. (Of course what we mean when we say "identity" is usually has more to do with memory and self-image than what organism we are, but I think it's still an interesting question with important ramifications.) And there are other reasons why I find planarians interesting.

When I'm in a poetic mood, though, I think about how, to a planarian, injury entails reproduction. Damage, if not lethal, is generative. I even wrote a sonnet about it once. This is lovely as a metaphor, of course, and I tried to make use of those metaphorical possibilities. But it recently occurred to me that a given planarian might not be so excited about reproductive regeneration. For us, as humans, our injuries hurt, scab over, heal, scar (sometimes). For them, as planarians, injuries produce other flatworms; at best these other flatworms are nutritional drains, competitors for the resources of one's own body, and at worst these other flatworms are volitional beings that try to swim in other directions than oneself, hampering movement and efficiency. That's maybe just the way of having children, but for most people children don't happen to you in the way that injuries do. If we were to ask a planarian how it felt about the worm budding out of its side or about the clone (that was once itself) with which it fights over its body, and if the planarian were capable of conscious and symbolic thought, it might answer that it would far prefer to reproduce sexually and to heal like other organisms do, that regeneration is great and all but this is just not worth it. Perhaps injuries are for the greater good: there are now two planarians to gripe about the situation rather than just one. All each of those planarians can see, though, is that the whole process has inconvenienced it. Then again, as far as I know planarians are incapable of conscious and symbolic thought, so perhaps it bothers them less than it might bother me.

The way I imagine a planarian would feel when asked to celebrate its injury is roughly how I feel about a lot of attempts at theodicy, or the secular versions of it, which claim that hardship makes you better. Today's reading from Romans has a version: "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5:3-5). But religions are far from the only institutions which make these sorts of claims; exercise gurus say things like, "No pain, no gain," and military types say that "pain is just weakness leaving your body." It all makes me a bit resentful: from what I can tell, the kind of suffering I must endure does not produce any hope or strength. Why would it? I'm not saying that suffering is never ennobling--it probably is--but for goodness sake why must I suffer if there is some other way to be ennobled? Why, if I must grow, must I do it through injury?

Primary Student + Undergraduate Student = Professor

The University of Nottingham has several series of excellent videos in which faculty and graduate students share interesting things from their disciplines in wonderfully soothing English accents. My favourite series is Periodic Table of Videos, which discusses chemistry (I know--my favourite videos are about chemistry? how did that happen?), but I want to share a video from Philosophy File.

"Beauty and Future Philosophers" is about a program that the U of Nottingham runs in which philosophers design workshops to teach philosophy to primary school students. What I find most interesting about the video is when the speaker. Jonathan Tallant, describes what it's like to tackle problems with primary school students, first-year undergraduate students, and philosophy professors. Undergraduate student have recently come from high school in which they are taught to think and write in very structured ways. Primary school students have none of this training; what they come up with are wild ideas from all sorts of directions, most of which don't work (but some of which do). Philosophy professors also have the structure born of training, but at the same time they have trained to ignore the training sometimes and just focus on the problem. Faculty are like a mix of undergraduate students and primary school students (and, implicitly, this is the aim of studying a discipline, the play of the structured and the spontaneous, the orthodox and the unorthodox, the methodical and the creative).

One thing I notice about the program that Tallant doesn't discuss directly is that they focus on problems, not philosophers or schools of philosophy. They go into a classroom and start an exercise in which the students are asked to make decisions and then justify those decisions--in the video's example, they ask the students to rank a number of images according to how beautiful they are, and then the students must justify their ranking. I'm not quite sure what to say about this, but it seems the right way to go about teaching philosophy at that level, rather like teaching math by getting students to solve problems rather than solve equations.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

As for Me and My House

On Disclosing Religion, Sexuality, Psychology

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a friend who mentioned that she and her fellow Catholics sometimes spoke of "coming out as Christian," confirming that I'm not the only one who has noticed a similarity between the kinds of stories people tell as Christians (which in Protestant circles, at any rate, are called "testimonies") and the kinds of stories people tell as LGTBQ folk. But I'm forced to wonder, first, why the comparison seems apt and, second, if it really is all that apt after all.

One of the things I didn't like about Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself is that it lacked examples which might make her subject clearer (and with Butler, clarity is often in peril). Giving an Account of Oneself is about the vexations one encounters when narrating one's own account. For instance, I cannot narrate my exposure in part because my narration would expose me in new ways, and were I to narrate that exposure, I would yet again be exposed in a new way. I remain partially opaque to myself and cannot narrate those parts I cannot see. Any account I give is shaped by my audience and by certain norms that my context determines without my consent. I think it's clear that Giving an Account takes coming-out narratives as a typical species, as it were, but Butler never explicitly states what kinds of accounts she is describing.

In trying to find examples of account-giving, I discovered that Butler's discussion seemed to apply equally well to the fumbling accounts I've had to give to non-Christians of my own Christianity (and, for that matter, of the fumbling accounts I've had to give to Christians of my uncertainties, unorthodoxies, or heresies). The vexations are appallingly similar: the sort of self-description you're giving doesn't fit in with your context's expectations of a self-account, and the kinds of questions that your audience has asked you don't set up very good answers, and giving the account changes the very situation you're trying to describe, and anyway you don't perfectly know why you feel what you feel or believe what you believe. In this way, it makes some sense to say that you can "come out as Christian."

There are other reasons that the comparison seems to hold: religion and sexuality* are often invisible and therefore secret until you choose to self-disclose; religion and sexuality can shape your decisions in important ways; in many cases people can be both apprehensive and celebratory when describing their religion or their sexuality.

But I worry that Christians (or straight ones, anyway) maybe ought to avoid using the language of "coming out" to describe their own religious self-expression. It seems to me like a form of appropriation, and a darkly ironic one at that: certain Christian reactions to homosexuality have been and still are one of the reasons that coming out as queer can be so dangerous. To take a phrase from queer culture that is inscribed with Christian oppression of homosexuality and then use it to describe a certain Christian identity could be very disrespectful, even if you are a Christian that supports LGTBQ identities whole-heartedly. And then there's the fact that Christians are not exposed like LGTBQ people are exposed; whatever the squawking you hear, there is no systemic persecution of Christians on par with that of LGTBQ people (or, for that matter, atheists).

Of course, it isn't hard to find accounts which put the two together: if the accounts I've read are any indication, queer Christians are asked to account for themselves as Christian and as queer simultaneously or near-simultaneously.

The reason I'm interested in comparing the testimony and coming-out genres is that another comparison is suddenly relevant to me: I have frequently been called on to give an account of my depression. It is beset with the same vexations that Butler has described. While the average person's acceptance of mental illness is improving, there is still the threat of stigma or potentially damaging incomprehension. (That said, I'm sure that in academia disclosing my psychology would be somewhat more successful than disclosing my religion.) A major difference is that I do not have much cause to celebrate my depression, nor do I have  much desire to make depression a part of my identity (though I think there are good reasons for saying that it is part of my identity nonetheless).

Last time I posted I spoke of genera and species, and I think that sort of taxonomy might be helpful here: "coming out story" is a species of the genus "account." I guess I wish there was a better, more specific, and more popular synonym for "account."

*Also, asexualty and irreligion.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Marriage as a Genus, Marriage as a Genre

This is one of the only things I plan to say about marriage, same-sex marriage, etc. It should explain why so many conversations I've heard about marriage seem fundamentally misguided to me.

I tend to think of marriage as a social and cultural institution, but one that is nearly universal. So I first approach this problem anthropologically (though, really, it's lay-anthropology because I have done very little academic anthropology). This makes it very tricky to define marriage, because while marriages have similarities across cultures--enough similarities for us to reasonably think of them as belonging in the same category--they also differ in important ways. How long does a marriage last? Under what conditions can it be dissolved? Is it best seen as a personal transformation, a contract, a sacrament? How important is the community's acknowledgement of the marriage? How many people are involved in the marriage? Who can marry whom, in terms of sex, gender, ethnicity, social class, family group, religion, genetic relatedness, species, ontological nature? Is marriage about property, kin-groups, sexual availability, reproduction, love? Who must consent to the marriage in order for it to count? The answers vary from group to group.

As far as I can tell there are two ways of approaching this diversity. The first is to insist that a certain set of answers is the only legitimate set of answers. This insists on a specific definition of marriage and says that anything else isn't really marriage. The second is to say that marriage is a genus of which there are many species, of which in turn there are many individuals.

My trouble with the first answer, which insists on a narrow definition of marriage, is that it is linguistic nonsense. We can use the word marriage in the phrase "same-sex marriage" or "plural marriage," for instance, without being misunderstood. But there are obviously limits: if we talk about a marriage between mathematical concepts, it is clear that we are being metaphorical. If I were to insist that mathematical concepts were literally getting married, you would be right to tell me I'm using the word improperly. If you're talking about the definition of the word marriage, it must include all social relations for which people can use the word in a literal sense and be understood. If you want to talk about something more specific, then you're not talking about its definition but rather its ideal form or its only allowable form, for example. But that's no longer about what marriage is--what the word indexes, what's allowed in the conceptual category--but what limits you think we ought to impose on how people engage in the social form that the word indexes. So only the second way of approaching the diversity of marriage practices makes sense to me. The second approach does not preclude statements about how people should go about getting married (and who should go about getting married), but it does eschew ontological arguments for those preferences. (In the language of species and genus, you would argue for some species and against others, but you acknowledge that they are all part of the same genus.)

But I'm also suspicious of statements about why you should get married and who should marry, questions about what marriage is for. I like the analogy of marriage as genre. I wrote already about how genres do not determine content but they do alter whatever content is put into them. You can deliver a lot of different belief-content in a given genre (say, a mystery), but you'd best consider how the format of a mystery novel will adjust your belief-content and whether a mystery novel is really the best form for that content. Perhaps an action-thriller or, alternately, a romance novel would be better. Similarly, there are multiple things that you could do with a marriage: maybe you want to express a pre-existing romantic state, or maybe you want to create a situation that would be good for child-rearing, or maybe you want to indicate to you community that your sexual/romantic availability has changed. Marriage could suit any of these ends. But you need to think about how marriage constrains whatever you want it to do for you, how it alters your relationships, and so on. And you need to think about how it does those things in the context of your particular community. Surely there are good and bad ways to use the genre, but the reason I prefer this framing is that it does not allow claims that marriage has a single intrinsic goal or a single set of best practices.

That said, I do agree that marriage should be somehow generative, whatever it is generates, because it needs to be worth its costs, and I've been hinting that  obliquely by using cognates of "generate" as my main analogies: genus and genre.

In case you want to know whether this is compatible with a religious worldview, I think it is. If God works in us, then God does that work through the cultural forms we have made. God need not have invented marriage to have made it sacramental; for that matter, God need not have invented sacramental marriage in order to use it as a sacrament. It is interesting to note, after all, that the Bible says nowhere that Adam and Eve got married. (I'm sure I'm deluding myself if I think that this will forestall Bible-quoting objections.)

Other People's [Insert Genre]s

I've written about imagining other people's epics and other people's mysteries. That's fun, but the real work--and I do this less often--is imagining through which genre another person's worldview would best be expressed.

Epics are pretty comprehensive; the protagonist should represent the community's values, but most of the ways it expresses worldview are historical and cosmological. It is sweeping. And epic is good for giving a whole image of a world. Mysteries, on the other hand, do not require that a single character embodies the values of a community. Instead, the workings of the community are itself on display. In a mystery, there is a sense that a social order can be ruptured and subsequently repaired through the business of justice. So in one narrow sense, mysteries are pretty conservative: they are about maintaining an existing order. They also have a preoccupation with epistemology. Meanwhile, epics are dedicated to a sense of change (though this change is normally placed in the past), since it is about the formation of something, whether the world or a gentleman or a scientific discipline.

In Shakespeare's day, poets got excited about metaphrasis, which is the process of re-writing an existing narrative in a different genres than the original. For instance, someone might re-write a prose romance as a play. The image they often used for metaphrasis was pouring water from one vessel into another. The vessels are genres and the water is content. However, this metaphor is not a perfect one because it obscures the extent to which the form changes the content. I sometimes say that forms aren't content-free, but even if they are, forms at least alter content in non-trivial ways. (This is why I find it annoying when people complain that a movie adaptation was different from the book. Of course it is. It's a different form.)

So if I'm thinking about a worldview or some other philosophical position, I not only think about what kind of epic a person could write for it or what kind of mystery a person could write for it, but also which genre would represent it best. If I'm a communist trying to improve my economic system's aesthetics, should I make a communist mystery novel, or a communist epic, or a Marxploitation flick, or a comromcom (communist romantic comedy)? (I made up those last two designations.) This is a question about the content's relation to form, but I mustn't forget that it's also a question about my audience. An exploitation flick might be insightful and critical to some but offensive to others; a romantic comedy might help one person understand but might alienate another. And so on.

I don't pretend that I actually come up with a definitive version of that worldview, or the best possible epic, mystery, etc. for that worldview. Ultimately I would far prefer to read a disability-theory epic (or a few different disability-theory epics) than imagine what one would look like because I think the possibilities for disability theory exceed my ability the imagine them on my own. But this kind of process helps me understand worldviews better by forcing me to ask specific questions about them (how would one solve a crime in this worldview? what would even count as crime? what virtues would an epic protagonist have? what is the shape of this worldview's world? which is more salient to this worldview--a comprehensive cosmology or a working epistemology?) and by forcing me to think it through on its own terms as much as possible. That, and I find it fun for its own sake!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Animals, Sports, Analysis

I have been angst-ridden of late, so to make up for it I will direct you to John Green's most excellent contribution to sports criticism:

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Envy for Sisyphus

I do not often write emotionally; as I've said before, I rarely feel the need to express my emotions to other people. But today my soul cries that its anguish be spoken and my soul's anguish happens to be on topic. I apologize in advance if this emotional display is unseemly.

Eve Tushnet suggests that I seriously underestimate the dangers of paralysis in the face of making a decision. Her concern with critical thinking is that it will keep you in the anteroom when you hate being in the anteroom. (Seriouly, go read the post.) This is a fair but false accusation. It is fair because, based on anything I've written, you wouldn't know how familiar I am with the agony of uncertainty. But the trouble is that, for me, it does not matter whether I've accepted or not, whatever that means; the doubts, as Eve notes, never go away. There are many many times that I would give anything--ANYTHING--for certainty. I feel lost, perpetually. I sometimes feel as though I have no purpose; this may come from the fact that I no longer know what career I want to pursue. I want a quest, you know? I want some sort of project that will give meaning to my decisions: I don't care whether I find a career or write a novel or take up a cause or fall in love or whatever. I am jealous of those children who stumbled upon Narnia, yes, but I am jealous even of Camus's Sisyphus; he may be faced with a meaningless task, but it is his meaningless task, and he knows he must do it and how it is to be done.

I know that my depression is making this worse right now. Stephen Greenblatt writes in "Invisible Bullets" that Shakespeare's Prince Hal is a reverse Midas, that everything he touches turns to dross. That is how I feel right now; any project to which I turn my hand appears worthless soon after I begin. But it's not just a recent thing. I've always felt this way, to an extent. In my undergraduate I met many people who believed that God had a special plan for them and they had some access to this plan; they claimed to feel the voice of God within the stillness of their souls. Try as I might, I could never hear this voice, but I wanted a special plan so badly (even though, really, I suspected that they were all fooling themselves). I convinced myself that my special plan was to develop a spirituality for those whose only experience of God was as a terrible and ringing silence, because such a task could only be completed by someone who had no personal experience of God but nonetheless believed (ie. me). In the end, though, I couldn't even believe that sorry sort of plan: if God has a plan for me, I do not presume to know what it is.

So if my reaction to what pretty much anyone else is saying on this seems, I don't know, bitter, it's because I am a little bitter. Not toward God, who I don't think has an obligation to explain himself to me or anyone else, but toward anyone who has made me feel like I need to be certain of things (or, to anyone who has acted like I have an obligation to explain myself to them). Maybe there is something in our culture which reprimands people who are overly certain, I don't know, but our culture isn't homogenous and there absolutely is something in our culture which has no sympathy whatsoever for those in the anteroom or, for that matter, those like me who presume to be in the main chamber without having a clue what they're doing there or whether they are even in the right building. It's not just that that's an uncomfortable position to be in; quite a lot of people make it an uncomfortable position to be in. I don't begrudge anyone their certainty, but I have seen so many people use their certainty to shame others, or at least justify the shaming, that I fear certainty makes it easy to weaponize beliefs. So the thing behind my tentativism, maybe, is terror. Terror that I will be excommunicated for my heresy, terror that I will be steamrolled by someone else's special plan, terror that I might be the one trodding on another as I pursue my own glorious purpose, terror that someone might hallucinate the voice of God demanding my sacrifice. And horror too that many people are experiencing these things even when I am not. And maybe I'm wrong, but I cannot imagine that any of these things would happen if the perpetrators were just a little less sure of themselves.

So I say I would give anything for certainty, for a purpose, for a quest, but this is not true. If there is something I am certain of, it is that I cannot tell anyone else's story, that I have an obligation to do no harm (or at least as little as possible), that I have an obligation to empathy. I will take on whatever agony I must to maintain these principles, and so if this means that I suffer uncertainty--for there is suffering in uncertainty--so be it.

This is what I say when I feel brave. The other side of the coin is that uncertainty seems to be part of my disposition. It is not a thing I chose in the first place. Do I think I am a better person for my uncertainty? Yes: the less certain I am, the less of a jerk I am. (Though I take Eve Tushnet's point that uncertainty doesn't combat oppression very effectively, and it should be noted that I am certain about some things, especially w/r to feminism and environmentalism and other causes that don't have handy names.) Do I think the world would be a better place if pretty much everybody was more willing to concede that they might be wrong? Yes, I do. But I will not pretend to have chosen this for myself; all I have done is accepted it, or owned it as they say. And I really cannot blame people for abandoning an openness to truth as they grasp for certainty, because I know as well as anyone how miserable uncertainty can make you.

But I know I have also celebrated uncertainty and postmodernism and so forth in the past, and while I have trouble celebrating it at this moment I still know that it is worth celebrating. In a way I've written about it a bit already when writing about fantasy novels. There is a joy not just in discovery, but in knowing that there is more to find than can ever be found. And instability can be just plain fun; when things are open to change, you can play with them, you can create, you can experiment. There is suffering, and today my soul screams for the kind of certainty others have and I do not, but if the possibility for certainty was extended to me, I would be tempted to take it and I would still turn it down. And I shall try to remain the joy it can give to keep me through until I am better able to experience that joy again.

Now, look, other people can write all they want about this, but for the time being I'm utterly sick of the topic so unless I've already told you personally that I'll answer your questions, I reserve the right to ignore your question. I'm not saying I will ignore it, just that I reserve the right.

Note: When I say "certainty," I mean more than just certainty about particular facts. I mean something closer to "metanarrative," or "certainty in a worldview," or "an idea that you know how to live a good life." I don't mean "feeling like you know all of the answers," but I do mean more than the sense of certainty in saying, "I am certain that there is such a thing as gravity." So I acknowledge that I'm not even sure myself exactly what it is I'm objecting to, and I promise I'll think about it, but I don't promise that I'll come back with answers. I can't promise that at all.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Define Your Terms, Christian!

On "Modernist" and "Postmodernist" and suchlike

When I wrote "Beyond Simple Acceptance," I made a note that "I employ the terms "modernist" and 'postmodernist' as I discovered them in The Truth About the Truth, edited by Walter Truett Anderson." In retrospect, I realize this is entirely unfair to you since this is not an easy book to find and you cannot know how I'm using my terms without finding and reading it. (To be fair to myself, I did not expect quite so many people to read that post.) So I will try to define my terms.

I want to note, very strenuously, that I am not really postmodernist. I was merely borrowing the terms "postmodernist" and "modernist" from postmodernism because they are available to me and I thought the distinction between them would be a fruitful way of framing my position.

Before we begin, I will recommend that you read my original posts (the first is here: link) about postmodernism. They are ~3 years old and my understanding has changed somewhat, but they are nonetheless serviceable. For the purposes of this post, I will not assume that you've read them.

Postmodernism tends to position itself as the last of a three-part movement in epistemological history, defined around modernism: first, there is premodernism; second, there is modernism; third, there is postmodernism.* However, there are really two ways of thinking about these concepts. One of these is as groupings of philosophical movements, which is how most people think of postmodernism,  but the other way is to think of them as the mode of a culture during a particular epoch, so the distinction is between premodernity, modernity, and postmodernity. I will address the modes first, and then the movements.

In premodern societies (or premodernity), people lived in complete, unchallenged worldviews. Everyone you knew believed the same thing, and it was probable that you did not even really know that there were people who believed different things than you did. If you did know of such people, it was easy to dismiss them. There was no culture shock.
In modern societies (or modernity), people were aware that there were multiple worldviews. Since your worldview was the correct one, you tried to get everyone to join that worldview by some method or another. You were engaged in a struggle of conversion, and your society was beset with culture shock.
In postmodern societies (or postmodernity), people have come to realize that their own worldviews will never be shared by all people. Your worldview might be the correct one, but you'll never convince your neighbour of that. And you know many people for whom this sort of situation, a permeation of culture shock throughout all of our lives, is not really so bad after all.

Anderson, in the book's introduction, summarizes it like this:
People in premodern, traditional societies had an experience of universality but no concept of it. They could get through their days and lives without encountering other people with entirely different worldviews--and, consequently, they didn't have to worry a lot about how to deal with pluralism. People in modern civilization have had a concept of universality--based on the hope (or fear) that some genius, messiah or tyrant would figure out how to get everybody on the same page--but no experience of it. [...] Now, in the postmodern era, the very concept of universality is, as the deconstructionists say, "put into question." [...] It begins to look like we're all going to have to get used to a world of multiple realities (6). 
Bear this in mind when we're talking about the movements, because in a sense the movements are about what kind of cultural mode you think you are living in (though I find it very hard to believe anyone could fail to recognize that we live in an intractably pluralist world now).

In his essay "Four Different Ways to Be Absolutely Right," Anderson traces out four worldviews based on where people locate truth.
The postmodern-ironist believes that truth is socially constructed.
The scientific-rationalist, a modernist, believes that truth is found through methodological inquiry.
The social-traditionalist, also a modernist, believes that truth is carried through the heritage of Western civilization.
The neo-romantic, a retro-premodernist, believes that truth is found through harmony with nature and/or exploration of the inner self. (111)
Now of course there are different varieties of each. The social-traditional worldview includes forms of nationalism, revealed religion, and philosophically- and aesthetically-inclined atheisms. Neo-romantics include radical environmentalists, New Age proponents, and so-called "California Buddhists." Postmodern-ironist movements include constructivists (who are more philosophically-inclined and choose to live a particular folkway rather than reject all or mix-and-match), postmodern players (who don't take much interest in abstract ideas of postmodernism and whose irony is more attitude and lifestyle than philosophical position), and nihilists (who believe that since all possible worldviews cannot be simultaneously true, none of them can be) (111-112).

My summary of Anderson's ideas and ideas from the many essays Anderson includes in the book, in a very simple form, is roughly as follows:
A modernist believes not only that there is an objective truth, but also that it is accessible to all people and you can, within reason, expect other people to access that objective truth the way you do. Different modernists locate this truth in different places--a religion's tradition, a religion's central administration, a sacred text, scientific inquiry, Western philosophy's tradition and method, a country's Constitution/Charter/Bill of Rights or legal code, an aesthetic work or movement, an economic system--but they all have a master story, what postmodernists call a metanarrative, about where the truth can be found and what that means for everybody else.
A postmodernist believes that no one can directly access any objective reality, and that all truth-claims are necessarily constructed. (Either "the map is not the territory" or "the map precedes the territory," depending on your postmodernist.) Sometimes, they believe that there is no objective reality, but that's not usually the case. Postmodernists reject, or at least are suspicious of, metanarratives; there is no master story to which all other stories must capitulate. You cannot expect other people to construct all of the same truths that you do (but there are some truth-claims that you can expect them not to construct, usually ones that essentialize people according to gender or ethnicity etc.).

So that's how I'm using those terms. I don't actually subscribe to the postmodernist story of intellectual history, or at least I recognize that it only applies to European and North American intellectual history. But, as I said, I find the distinction between the two positions fruitful.

(For what it's worth, I don't consider myself as taking part in either position, not exactly. If I were Hegelian, I might say that where modernism is the thesis and postmodernism is the antithesis, my beliefs are the synthesis. But I'm not Hegelian. I do think most postmodernisms are bound to fail--they make their own metanarratives, after all--but also that postmodern critiques of most modernisms are fatal. I would say that anyone who doesn't take postmodernism seriously, and doesn't adjust their modernism into something that is no longer quite modernism, is underestimating postmodernism's claims. But postmodernism isn't the place to stop, either.)


*I intend to commit the sin of reification. I'm going to talk about postmodernism as though it were an agent. It isn't, obviously; postmodernists are agents, but postmodernism isn't. But it's so much easier to attribute stuff to postmodernism because it's hard to find any one postmodernist who says all of these things.
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