DAY TEN: WHAT'S WRONG WITH POSTMODERNISM? Part 1
If you are a student of anthropology with any appreciation of the history of our discipline, you will be aware that the discipline has been under serious and sustained attack for just about a generation. The effect of this attack has been to create a great deal of confusion about what the discipline is on about, and to render scientific theory construction all but moribund. This attack has gone under various labels, "post- structuralism," "humanism," "critical anthropology," "cultural studies," "postmodernism," and so on. This attack has generally speaking been directed at two presumed failings of anthropology:
There are so many labels for these various movements and pseudo-scientific positions that I will arbitrarily pick "postmodernism" as the label I will use here to simplify our terms of reference. This won't do too much injustice to the various centers of attack, for they all seem to be driven by the same motivations -- namely, anti-science and anti-oppression -- and thus make the same fundamental errors. It is the errors I want to address, and only part of the motivation, for I, too, would rather that people not be "oppressed" and hurt in all the ways humans seem to be able to misunderstand, injure and dominate other human beings.
I am introducing this topic at this point in the tutorial because:
Over the past generation or so, anthropology has been variously characterized as:
According to many of those writers attacking anthropology- as-colonial-instrument, research and theory in the discipline should be in the direction of exposing and unmasking the various cultural factors maintaining hegemony (i.e., dominance, dominion, heavy authority) of one human group over another human group. Anthropological movements and theoretical schools that take this position (see Scheper-Hughes 1995) hold that anthropology is, or should be an applied moral enterprise. In most moral models there is some way to correct evil. In the current moral model in anthropology this is done by unmasking the symbolic hegemony that hides and legitimates oppression. The moral corrective act is denunciation. One can also act morally by giving voice to those who resist oppression; this at least identifies the oppression and the oppressors. Nowadays one can have a moral career in anthropology; having a moral career in anthropology is being known for what one has denounced. (d'Andrade 1995:400)
OBJECTIVITY VS. SUBJECTIVITY
Postmodernism, whether of the political/moral sort, or the more amoralistic/relativistic sort, is fundamentally anti- realist and non-empirical in its evaluation of "truth." The truth is attained when either the essentially relativistic nature of knowledge is acknowledged, or the underlying hegemonic function of knowledge is unveiled. There is no reference in postmodernist accounts to any transcendental reality in relation to which human knowing "trues itself" (see my earlier discussions of truth and belief ).
The debate these days is frequently a polemic between those who embrace the "objectivity" of science and those that deny any such thing as objectivity exists, and who lodge their methods in subjectivity (or reflexivity). Objectivists would have us return to the "good old days" of positivism, and subjectivists would have us embrace the moral high ground of critical theory.
Typical of human beings, polarization of knowledge is often due to predominance of an effort after meaning -- a giving-in, so to speak, to the cognitive imperative to make experience meaningful to the ego. As an objectivist, Roy d'Andrade (1995:399) would have us talk about the object without describing oneself. In other words, he would have us distinguish "subject" from "object" and build our science around the object. And of course, the "object" is something apart from us -- it's "out there" somewhere.
But what has biogenetic structuralism to say about this claim about the object? Well, it's out there and it isn't, depending upon whether you are talking about the transcendental object (the noumenon or nexus) apart from our knowing of it, or the cognized object that is the object we are aware of in our experience -- the object constituted by our sensorium. And this is so whether the "other" is a piece of pottery or a person. So, to an extent Roy d'Andrade is right. Objectivity, if it means anything useful in a naturalistic discipline like ethnography, is a strategy for keeping the observing subject from mucking up the scope of inquiry as much as possible. The fact that I have a headache should not have an effect upon whether I record the right native term for mother's brother.
But divorcing the object from the subjectivity of experience is not the way anymore to conceptualize objectivity. That kind of naive positivism has been completely debunked. Moreover, it is wrong-headed because it is as phenomenologically naive as is the "reflexivity" (for heaven's sake, please do not read "reflexivity" as equivalent to mature contemplation!) of the postmodernist strategy.
The naivete of positivism rests in the fallacy that we can know the world "as it really is" apart from the process of our knowing of it. Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha was occasionally asked to talk about the world apart from consciousness of the world, and he would remain mute, steadfastly refusing to answer such questions. Indeed, this was one of the ten famous questions the Buddha remained silent about. If I may be so presumptuous as to say why he refused to comment on the question, it was because the problem was in the naivete of the question itself. To ask to know something without the process of knowing conditioning what is known is just silly. Positivism often led to reification of scientific models of the world upon the operational environment in just this naive sort of way -- as though our models of the world were the world.
For all the reasons that Rik Pinxten (1981) suggests, the positivistic rendition of ethnographic fieldwork as a value- free, totally objective (totally non-subjective or interactional) enterprise won't wash. It won't wash because it begs more fundamental epistemological questions, the very questions (as you will appreciate having followed this tutorial) that are the raison d'etre of biogenetic structural theory. Our answer is that both a neuroepistemology and a neurophenomenology must ground our understanding of how we come to know the world and how we communicate that knowledge to others. An accurate and modern understanding of the power of science is not possible without that foundation.
This said, the rejection of naive positivism does not necessarily open us up to the "specter of relativism" (as Lawrence Schmidt entitled his 1995 edited book of articles on the philosophy of Gadamer). The tendency is (as always it seems!) to polarize objectivity and subjectivity. And neither option is the case in their pure sense. As we have seen, there is no such thing as a knowing consciousness without intentionality. We are only able to record knowledge, as in a book or in a text file on the Internet, from a certain point of view. Actually, what we set down in books and files are symbols and it is the reader that produces the knowledge within their consciousness during the experience of reading. The symbols penetrate to their meaning in the conscious brain. Thus we are able to communicate knowledge using symbol systems and thus come to share information in a public way. As I have repeatedly emphasized in my writings, there is no such thing as a totally public experience, but a great deal of sharing of information and knowledge can and does occur quite naturally among members of a social group.
From a biogenetic structural point of view, objectivity means (and can only mean) that knowledge may be intersubjectively shared. There is always a subjective aspect to experience, and to some extent all experiences are ineffable. What makes considerable objectivity possible is the trueing process that is neurognostically built into the very organization of the knowing brain.
Trueing is part of the exaptational structure of living systems. That is, neural structures are "coopted" to model novelty in the operational environment with considerable verity. This makes sense when you keep in mind that the Prime Directive at the level of the knowing brain is to obtain food without becoming food. There is a built-in accuracy to knowledge that derives from the initial neurognostic structure of the cognitive system, and that foundation of accuracy remains to some considerable extent during the development of neurocognitive structures throughout life.
As I say, the Prime Directive in all critters with big brains and extensive cognized environments requires some mechanism to more or less standardize individual cognized environments in service to the commonweal. Language is the primary medium for this standardization in humans, although other symbolic systems are operating as well. In any event, intersubjective sharing of vicarious experience is fundamental to human sociality. But contrary to some of the postmodernist views, the standardization of meaning is trued (rendered veridical, accurate) relative to the operational environment in experience. Neurognostic structures, already functioning to mediate nascent truth, develop within the context of tension between inherent developmental processes, socially received knowledge, and direct experience.
For most people most of the time, this tension is resolved by the completion of systems of meaning within the brain that nonetheless remain somewhat open to novelty, but mainly produce a redundant world of experience. But the conditions of experience can be set up, as in a series of lab experiments, or as in a set of field observations paired with focused questions, in which attention is directed at possibly anomalous experiences. The system of meaning may be again opened to the process of trueing -- views are tested in the crucible of direct experience. And the results of the trueing may then be intersubjectively shared and standardized in symbolic descriptions.
The process of opening the effort for meaning to the transformative effects of the effort for truth -- a very natural and phenomenologically available process -- is very commonly only partially adumbrated and then conceptualized and labelled and then passed around as though it is an accurate depiction of the entire natural process of trueing. Thus the intersubjective sharing of observation and knowledge becomes reified and normatively elevated to the status of reality -- perhaps interpreted as total objectivity. This error is precisely why both James and Husserl taught that we must perpetually return to "things as they are," to a phenomenology of objectivity. This requires that we are able to distinguish between subject and object and yet discern the intentional processes that operate between.
TRANSPOSITION, TRUTH AND THE WRITING OF ETHNOGRAPHY
As I said earlier, a difficulty that the intersubjective sharing of experience inevitably faces is the problem of transposition. Any symbolic medium shares this narrowing of the channel of information -- like squeezing information through a funnel. Experienced ethnographers know that they are never able to record all they experience and come to know about life in their host cultures. Moreover, by selecting one language over another to communicate knowledge about the host culture, the limits and conditions of the language effect the knowledge transmitted by that medium.
But in the sense that I have defined the terms in this tutorial, trueing is still operating in the ethnographic enterprise, even though communication of ethnographic information is via symbolic media. Indeed, trueing our understanding of the Other (to use today's common parlance) has motivated ethnographers from the very beginning of the discipline. This is not to say that other motivations have not intervened from time to time. But anthropologists all along have wanted to portray their hosts' ways of life in as accurate a way as possible -- this despite the vagary of the political culture of their day.
The failure in postmodern attacks on objectivity, and in objectivist reactions to those attacks is that "truth" and "meaning" (or "interpretation") are polarized. The fact of the matter is -- and a plain fact if you take the biogenetic structural view -- that there is no such thing as knowing the truth of something without interpretation playing a role in the knowing. Knowing the truth about something is knowledge that is trued to the transcendental event in the operational environment. "Truth" is the product of a process, a process of trueing which involves the transformation of models in the cognized environment in interaction with the operational environment. (In our early work we often spoke of the empirical modification cycle, or EMC, and it was the trueing process that we were addressing, although we didn't bear down on the issue.)
POLITICS AND TRUTH
When I was a young Ph.D. student, I benefitted by all the money that was made available by the US government for African research. When many African nations suddenly became independent from their colonial masters in the early '60s, the US government found they had to deal with these countries directly and needed to know more about the cultures they were going to be confronting. So they made research moneys available and young anthropology students flocked to become Africanists. But the motivation of the funding agency or the US government had nothing whatever to do with what I was interested in, and the research that I did in Uganda was determined by my own interest in how cultures adapt to adversity.
Now, if you were to read my ethnography of the So people of Northeastern Uganda, and you were interested in whether or not the So used spiked wheel traps for hunting, or what their descent system is like, you would find that information faithfully recorded in that book. The motivation of government for funding the research is irrelevant to whether or not the So used spiked wheel traps in their hunting, or whether or not the So allow marriage between members of the same clan. These are facts about the So that are part of a record of my observations while living in Soland. Now, how you interpret these facts depends on all sorts of factors, not the least being your experience of traditional hunting technologies, descent systems, your interest in and experience with African peoples, your theoretical standpoint, etc. You may be a radical or Marxist feminist vitally interested in questions of differential power among social classes. If so, then maybe you aren't interested in whether So hunters use spiked wheel traps or not. Never the less, the intersubjectively shared "objective" fact that the So do not use spiked wheel traps is not effected by your bias -- only your use or non-use of the fact is effected.
And if you were interested in testing my account of So hunting technology, you could travel to Soland and make inquiries of your own and test my empirical claims about spiked wheel traps. You undoubtedly would find, as I did, that although many societies in that part of East Africa do indeed use spiked wheel traps, the So in fact do not. And it would really not matter one bit what your theoretical or political orientation is. No amount of theoretical or ideological re- interpretation of So culture will make So hunters in fact spiked wheel trap users.
PHENOMENOLOGY OF OBJECTIVITY
Now, watch your own consciousness right now -- do some phenomenology on yourself. (Ha! you really can't very well do phenomenology on anybody else, can you?) I have told you that the So do not in fact use spiked wheel traps. That claim is true about the So during and before the period I was living with them. (Of course, some may have learned to make and use them since my time there. Who knows?) Now you know something true about the So of Northeastern Uganda. But what is it that you know? What exactly do you know now that you didn't know a few minutes ago? Do you know what a spiked wheel trap really is? Do you know how it is used by the hunters of other cultures that do in fact use them? Do you know for instance why they are illegal to own or use in Uganda? Do you know how to make one? Can you see one in your mind's eye? Can you use the fact of the absence of the spiked wheel trap among the So to add information to your understanding of the historical relations among cultures in East Africa?
I could address all of these questions relative to spiked wheel traps, and the more I tell you about them, the more your brain will configure an increasingly complex model of spiked wheel traps and their cultural significance to peoples in East Africa. And the further I get from reporting direct experiences on my part, the more an interpretive aspect creeps into the communication. Sooner or later I will have left descriptions of direct experiences behind and be into the domain of theory, interpretation and supposition which you may well end up disagreeing with, even though you have never clapped eyes on a spiked wheel trap in your life.
But if my theorizing is grounded in my observations (and other people's symbolically shared observations), then I am in the arena of empirical science in which the truth value of my theorizing is not evaluated relative to moral values or ideology, but rather in the direct or intersubjectively shared experiences of observers.
It is not the case that all systems of knowledge are equivalent and culturally relative. Some knowledge is truer than other knowledge. It is not the case that some systems of knowledge come to the fore only because they are politically privileged over alternative systems of knowledge, although any study of religious fundamentalism will give clear evidence that this may happen in the world. Come to think about it, the study of the various "political correctness" movements in academia today will give you more evidence that this can happen. Systems of knowledge may prove to be pragmatically "real" to people in their everyday lives -- the system of knowledge may be "real" because it is sufficiently veridical that it allows people to get things done in the world. This is trueing in its most mundane, pragmatic, everyday sense.
But as far as it may seem to be from the arcane realm of scientific research, the crucible of truth is still in direct experience. I have had the privilege of working with the police from time to time. And one thing I learned about cops is that they tend to be pragmatists. If you can show cops that an idea will work on the street, they are with you. If you can't show them it works on the street, you can talk til you are blue in the face and you will never persuade them.
Good science depends upon this kind of natural realism. I say "natural" because we all operate in our daily lives upon a built-in presumption that the world we experience is in fact the world that exists. (You may want to read or reread what I have said in an earlier Tangent on the experience of apodicticity, or the sense of necessity, reality and truth that is wired-into experience.) I submit that even the most avid philosophical idealist or relativist doesn't actually doubt that the floor is there when she next puts her foot down. The truth of our models of reality are evaluated in experience -- experience in the lab, experience in the field, and experience in our daily life.
Because the world is transcendental, taking any theoretical stance immediately produces the conditions for anomalous experiences. Let me expand on this further. A theory in the usual sense of the term is already a public text. That is, the theory is part of our understanding of something that is intersubjectively shared. Moreover, a theory is generally in some symbolic form or another (i.e., communicated in natural spoken language, in writing, or in mathematical form). And as I have said, symbolic media are inevitably transposed from the relatively information rich domain of experience into a relatively information poor medium of symbolism. And as experience itself is always intentional, experience itself is information poor relative to the transcendental nature of the operational environment. And when life or discipline forces us to evaluate our theoretical texts in the crucible of experienced engagement with the transcendental, we are immediately thrown into a dialogue between the richness of reality and the incompleteness of knowledge.
There are states of consciousness that are relatively open to truth and those that are relatively closed to the truth. Consciousness that is open to truth, that is operating from an effort for truth, is obvious when you meet it. There is a flexibility of understanding and an enduring state of curiosity and emotional openness and neutrality to the disconfirming possibilities of the transcendental world. There is an excitement about the quest, perhaps an awe of the vastness of the unknown.
The opposite consciousness is even easier to spot. Knowledge is in the service of non-empirical convictions. Knowledge is generated as rationalization for emotion-charged beliefs that are inflexible and inaccessible to disconfirmation by testing relative to the transcendental possibilities. This is a consciousness locked into a closed system of ideas -- a kind of "hardening of the categories." Potentially anomalous data are over-assimilated into the fixed idea structure and rendered redundant. As Jung often said, if there is a lot of emotion behind someone's ideas, then there is heavy projection of those ideas onto the world.
Many of my anthropology colleagues today fervently believe the world can be made a better place for oppressed people. So fervent are their beliefs in this regard that they feel this should be the entire focus of the discipline. Whereas I agree with them to an extent that the world can be sometimes improved, I disagree that we can ever get to that goal by way of any ideology, be that ideology radical feminism, environmentalism, capitalism, Marxism, postmodernism, or whatever-ism. Paraphrasing Carl Jung again, "isms" are the cancer of our age.
And the only alternative to ideology is good science. Real science. Science that is committed to truth first, then action -- or trueing built-in to action. Science that always looks to experience to disconfirm ideas about the world. After all, compassion is not just loving activity from good intentions. Compassion is love plus wisdom - - wisdom that develops in a continuous effort for truth in dialogue with the transcendental nature of reality.
So, in the end I come down strongly in favor of a science of humanity that is free to seek, model and speak truth to any circumstance. Good science is never concerned with being politically correct -- never concerned with "being on the side of the angels," politically or otherwise. One cannot serve both truth and ideology. I am not talking about absolute truth in any sense here. And I am certainly not arguing that we should embrace the views of science as one relativistic view being privileged over many other possible views, as the postmodernists would have us believe. For one thing, this would lead us into the fallacy of scientific imperialism. And for another thing, we would lose sight of the truth of the transcendental -- the knowledge that our knowledge, any knowledge, is partial and incomplete.
No, if scientific knowledge is to be privileged, it is so primarily because scientific accounts are frequently directed at questions that never occur to traditional people to ask, and frequently are truer, more extensive and complex, more open to empirical disconfirmation, more productive of further knowledge, and more pragmatically useful than other competing views. This is because good science is an effort for truth, and is never satisfied with a mere effort for meaning. But the irony of good science is that the process itself is inherently disruptive of systems of meaning. The effort for truth is ultimately open ended, while the effort for meaning closes in upon itself, like the proverbial snake eating its own tail.
Postmodernism, while certainly understandable at the level of well-intended action in the world, is not a replacement for good science. The greatest danger to humanity and perhaps to the planet is not in fact the oppression of people by other people, is not nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution, or even the growth of the power of transnationals. These are just the byproducts of a far greater danger. That danger is our ignorance, our failure to understand ourselves and the limitations of our cognitive capabilities. The best hope for understanding humanity and its nature is good, dynamic, empirical science, the most advanced manifestation of the effort for truth that has yet to evolve on the planet.
We have reached the end of this section of the tutorial. You may have noticed that I titled this session "Part One." This is because I have more to say about the failings of postmodernism, but this will have to wait for a more advanced discourse. I must not lose track of the purpose of this tutorial.
Some relevant references are to be found below. You may wish to carry on to Day Eleven (sorry, not yet finished), or return to the tutorial index.
Asad, Talal (1973) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter . London: Ithaca Press.
D'Andrade, Roy (1995) "Moral Models in Anthropology." Current Anthropology 36(3):399-408.
Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge . New York: Harper.
Pinxten, Rik (1981) "Observation in Anthropology: Positivism and Subjectivism Combined." Communication & Cognition 14(1):57-83.
Rosaldo, Renato (1989) Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis . Boston: Beacon.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1995) "The Primacy of the Ethical." Current Anthropology 36(3):409-420.
Schmidt, Lawrence K., ed. (1995) The Specter of Relativism: Truth, Dialogue, and Phronesis in Philosophical Hermeneutics . Evanston,IL: Northwestern University Press.