In its academic heyday in the late 80's and early 90's, postmodernist theories about The Real and how we come to know it (or not) provided an intoxicating elixir for humanities professors who had been sobered by the real world successes of their colleagues in the natural sciences. Perhaps a bit envious of the research grants thrown at chemists, physicists, and engineers, liberal arts profs tried to squeeze their inherently squishy disciplines into the hard mold of science. They failed.
Having failed to transform the study of literature, history, religion, etc. into rigorous disciplines a la physics, humanities professionals succumbed to the temptations of Not Knowing and proclaimed the advent of Universal Ignorance. And when this proclamation proved to be too bourgeois for the faculty lounge and the conference circuit, they moved as a herd toward the cliffs of Nihilism and Despair, otherwise known as deconstructionism.
That we cannot know everything there is to know about everything approaches the axiomatic. But to conclude from this premise that absolutely nothing is knowable is absurd. For example, we know the distance of the sun from earth, approx. 150 million km or about 93 million miles. We do not know the exact chemical composition of the sun; that is, we do not know precisely how many chemical compounds make up the sun and in what proportion. That we don't know the exact chemical composition of the sun doesn't mean that we cannot know the sun's distance from the earth. However, this is exactly what postmodernist theorist would have us believe: any particular admission of ignorance regarding X is a universal admission that X is unknowable. In other words, my ignorance of one thing is the same as my inability to know anything at all.
To make matters worse, pomo theorists push the absurd to the nihilistic by asserting that universal ignorance necessarily entails the denial of reality per se. Not only am I ignorant about X and not only can I know nothing about X b/c of this ignorance, I must conclude that X doesn't exist. Now, if these theorists really believed this and lived with some degree of integrity, we'd never hear from them again. You'd have to insane to spend your time rattling on about a non-existent reality. But they have the same bills to pay that the rest of us do. Enter: interpretative narratives.
Here's the move: humanistic disciplines like literature and history cannot be stuffed into scientific molds, so the hard sciences must be liquified and poured into humanistic molds. Science like literary criticism or historical accounting is really just a form of narrative, a story we tell one another to help us live more or less fruitful lives. Replete with metaphors, similes, and other rhetorical devices, science does not and cannot describe a mind-independent world at all. All it does is impose an attractive story on our ignorant observations of phenomena. We are left with knowing nothing more than the stories we tell and all stories are equally true. Einstein's theory of general relativity has the same truth-value as Homer's Iliad.
In the pomo world, narratives function as meaning-giving structures, that is, they impose order, significance, and purpose. This sounds like a good thing. It's not. Always on guard against any narrative that even hints at being oppressive, pomo theorists rail against certain kinds of narrative that appear to privilege classes of people over and against other classes of people. Enter: cultural Marxism. Although these theorists insist on the non-existence of a mind-independent reality, they almost always fall back on the necessity of opposing the Grand Narratives of Oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) with the reality of radical human equality. All human beings are exactly the same in every way and our cultural-social institutions must be shaped in such a way that no differences are recognized or celebrated. In order to do this, ironically, all differences among humans must be celebrated and valued, except, of course, those differences that give rise to the notion that all humans are different and to be valued as individuals.
Nonsense, you say? Absolutely. But nonsense always shows its chaotic face when we detach our ways of knowing from what can be known.
You might be wondering: why should I care what a bunch of comparative lit profs think about reality? When we detach our ways of knowing (science, language) from what we can know (reality) we are left with nothing more than assertions about power. With no objective measure for the true, the good, and the beautiful, subjective measures reign supreme. In such a world, who rules? Ultimately, if history is any predictor, those with the most money and guns. Without a real, knowable connection between the Good and the True, those with power define the what is good and true. To sum up with a literary allusion: all pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.
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