Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 1: Lyotard

I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.

I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.

I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.

I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.

I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore. I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.” Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.

Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.

The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.

I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.

I don’t think this is that controversial. He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge. The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.

This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.

The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.

This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.

Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.

Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science. Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).

All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?

And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.

The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.

Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.

How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.

I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.

When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.

I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.

I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.

Gravity’s Rainbow

I’ve been putting off this post all day. I finished Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon today. It was part of my “Gravity’s Rainbow Challenge” to read the novel in under two months. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a post on it, but I felt that it is too major not to. It is said that people have written entire Ph.D. theses on just a single page of this novel. This is unverified rumor, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This leads me to a dilemma.

Dilemma: If I take something small and doable for a post, maybe just a detail somewhere, then it is pointless for people who haven’t read the book. There is no reference point. If I do just a general review, then it would be to miss the point.

So most people consider this to be THE postmodern novel. Some would say the greatest novel of the twentieth century (although I think Beloved officially won that or something). This was not my first Pynchon experience, so I sort of new what to expect. I also went in prepared with resources for help if I needed it. Overall, it wasn’t as hard as people make it sound. There was surprisingly a clear main character and also clear other main characters that weren’t quite as main as that one (Tyrone Slothrop).

I guess I’ll just offer advice. If you are thinking about reading it but are worried, don’t be. Just do it. It isn’t that hard. You may come out having no idea what it was about, but there is a story and you should be able to get that. For at least 200 pages, keep a list of main characters and how they relate. You probably won’t need it after that, but it will save time in the beginning with all the switching around that is done every couple of pages. I used a blank sheet of computer paper. After I was done trying to keep track of characters, I used it to keep track of ideas or details that I thought were important.

For a more advanced reading, I’d say to try to figure out how each of the quotes at the beginning of the section and the name of the section are pertinent. Trust me, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. I have at least three distinct interpretations of Part I: Beyond the Zero now. If you don’t know German or Spanish, look up the parts that are in these languages. It may be important. Read Rilke’s Duino Elegies before starting. Be familiar with Kabala and Tarot traditions. The names of things and the act of naming something is important.

For a super advanced reading, I’d say learn calculus (and the philosophy of infinitesimals), quantum mechanics, differential equations, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Maxwell’s Demon/entropy and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Now I call this a “super advanced reading,” but in my interpretation, you miss the whole point if you don’t relate it to incompleteness of formal systems and uncertainty in infinitesimals.

What did I think? Well, it is without a doubt worth the effort. It is the most impressive work of literature I’ve ever read. It was mostly enjoyable, too. I was expecting pure unreadable erudition, but it really wasn’t. In fact, the style of writing changed to fit what was necessary for the section. Often times it would switch to screenplay, play, poem, song, letter, and more as the format of writing. I lost many nights of sleep working out what I consider to be the main theme. I actually wish I could write a big paper on this right now, since I think it has been largely ignored. I truly feel that it is an embodiment and expression of how the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle affect our everyday lives.

There is also a very interesting theory proposed that not only are unobserved particles wavefunctions, but we as humans are wavefunctions. It is sort of zen-like. He claims that the more we live in the moment, the more our wavefunction is spread out. The more we pay attention to the past and cling to things, the more instantiated our wavefunction is. The act of achieving enlightenment is to be completely in the moment which means your wavefunction is completely everywhere and thus you are one with everything.

Note that I have not said the slightest thing about the plot. This was on purpose. If you go and read a plot summary somewhere after reading this, just know that it is not accurate. There is no such thing as a plot summary and to try to say the slightest thing about the plot would be to miss the point of the novel completely. It is an experience rather than a work of literature. I highly recommend experiencing it if you have the time and energy to devote to it.