Monday, September 23, 2019

A Dead End In An Analysis Of Postmodernism’s Dead End

First this:

Now me:

I was enthusiastically with Werner up to the end of his dismantling Foucault:

…”discursive formation,” which is defined as the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems…

My thought on reading this was that just as words stretched beyond their usual discrete meanings, say “racism,” become vacuous, so too do conceptions like “the total set of relations.”

And then Werner hammers the Foucault nail on its head so as to drive it into incoherence insofar as Foucault purports to give an ultimate account of how things are:

…To the extent that individuals and groups of people generate particular perspectives of the truth, Foucault was right. But the postmodern idea that there is “no underlying meaning” in the world apart from what people may produce is nonsense. That a certain perspective is exclusive and hinders access to other ideas is a comment on the limitations of the perspective, not on the degree to which truth can be known and shared…

The only real query I recall up to this point in the essay is: what does Werner mean by “the rhetorical approach to language” in teaching poetry? Does he mean something like the New Criticism or something like the techniques of rhetoric as “one of the three ancient arts of discourse” or something else? But that unclarity didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for what I was reading.

And his theme became well settled in my mind, that the particular shorn of the universal is ultimately and dangerously limiting, that there is underlying objective truth not bound by its particular circumstances, science and its method being the search for it.

But after Werner’s nice putting away of Foucault, his essay began eating too many calories and flab set in. To my mind, the flab has two distinct folds that hang over the lost leanness.

The first is, may I say, rhetorical. Which is to say, we get the basic idea. How many times and in how many different ways need it be repeated?

The second is substantive and an abiding unresolved tension marks it. In all the endless repetition of his theme, Werner with what he characterizes as universal ironically parallels his complaint about the particular shorn short of the universal. As the latter finally becomes meaningless, a wretched relativism, then too identifying a grand theme that can be the measure of all else itself becomes vacuous by deemphasizing the particular. For example:

…”My contention is that Darwinian evolutionary theory offers the truest basis with which to deal with the perils and opportunities of being human, as that awareness affects not only our work as teachers and scholars, but also our relationship with the nature which binds us to life on this decreasingly commodious sphere”…

Werner quotes Glen Love as to the above and says “his argument is my own.”

What can these airy words mean, however nice they sound? No one sensible will deny that our goal is to live safely, happily and securely in a safe, secure physical and human world. But with which specific conflicting approaches, conflicting policies, conflicting theories, theories, conflicting data, conflicting interests and so on do we go forward; by what criteria do we judge them; how do we even decide on those criteria? And so on.

These questions take us back to all the roiling that marks all of human life over time. Foucault saw a universality in particularity, was strongly telling in his analysis of power as determinant in human relations but ran into a brick wall in making particularity his universal and giving foundational premises to the Postmodernism against which Werner rightly inveighs. But, big but, Werner, as do others with like pleas, errs in asserting a universal without giving sufficient heed to the particular, such that in the way he frames his desideratum, he begs entirely the question of what is to be done.

In short, the universal and the particular are always in fraught and dynamic tension. Neither has meaning without the other.

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