The Postmodernism Debate

The Postmodernism Debate

After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, some cultural commentators suggested that the attacks might at...

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After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, some cultural commentators suggested that the attacks might at least do some salutary collateral damage to the doctrine of postmodernism. That voguish academic outlook’s disdain for universal abstractions such as justice, its denial that any objective warrant exists for moral judgment or truth, suddenly appeared terribly hollow. "This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective," columnist Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 22, 2001). "And even mild relativism seems troubling in contrast."

Postmodernist superstar Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been eager to take up the challenge, speaking out in an assortment of venues: the Times op-ed page (Oct. 15, 2001), Harper’s Magazine (July 2002), and The Responsive Community (Summer 2002), where he is the main participant in a symposium that asks, "Can Postmodernists Condemn Terrorism?"

Though he deems the word terrorism "unhelpful," Fish answers that question in the affirmative. The Fishian postmodernist—who may or may not be typical of the breed—appears like nothing so much as the quintessential Humphrey Bogart character: a cynic on the outside, impatient with high-sounding abstractions and causes, and an idealist underneath, ready in the actual event to do battle for truth and justice. "I in fact do" support the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Fish avows.

It turns out that there are universals, after all, according to this prominent postmodernist. "I am not saying that there are no universal values or no truths independent of particular perspectives. I affirm both." It’s just that they can’t be independently proved to everyone’s satisfaction, Fish explains. So the postmodernist must fall back on his own convictions, about which, by definition, he can hardly be a relativist.

"The basis for condemning what was done on September 11 is not some abstract vocabulary of justice, truth, and virtue—attributes claimed by everyone, including our enemies, and disdained by no one—but the historical reality of the way of life, our way of life, that was the target of a massive assault."

Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, one of the dozen participants in the Responsive Community symposium, hails Fish’s postmodernist as "a mature, imaginative, and open-minded individual. His large human sympathies make him impatient with facile rhetoric" and doubtful that "justice is entirely on our side. But Fish’s postmodernist is no wimp: He can vigorously defend our way of life and oppose that of our enemies."

It’s the two relativist "siblings" of the Fishian postmodernist—the empty-minded "freshman relativist," who thinks all opinions equally valuable, and the destructive relativist, who sneeringly debunks others’ lofty claims, oblivious to his own intellectual limitations—that "have brought the relativist family into disrepute." They shrink from convictions and causes, and from "politically incorrect" expressions of opinion. "Fish is right to disown them," Blackburn says, "but wrong to pretend that they are figments of right-wing imagination."

Fish is guilty of "rank sophistry," charges Peter Berkowitz, a professor of law at George Mason University, writing in The New Republic (June 28, 2002). "Either Fish is confused about exactly what postmodernism means, or he is willing to say anything—no matter how internally inconsistent—to win an argument. Or maybe both." As Fish now presents it, Berkowitz says, postmodernism stands for "the sensible though innocuous proposition that not everybody will always grasp what universal standards require. Now, if this is what postmodernism teaches, it is hard to understand what all the fuss has been about." But "the guiding theme of postmodernism is that objectivity, especially in morals, is a sham—in other words, precisely the definition Fish was disavowing."

Benjamin R. Barber, author of A Passion for Democracy (1998) and a participant in the Responsive Community symposium, agrees. "We can’t have it both ways: the courage of skepticism, the boldness of anti-foundationalist reasoning, the novelity of irony—but all without consequences. Yet Fish has it both ways."

"A commitment to the very abstractions that Fish wants us to drop is, for some of us, the most appealing element of ‘our way of life,’" observes another symposium participant, Joshua Cohen, a professor of philosophy and political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The country, Lincoln said, was conceived in an idea, and dedicated to a proposition. Drop those (contested) abstractions, and you lose what is arguably best in the American tradition."

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