My Relativism

Like Romanticism, Post-Modernism is a poorly defined term that means different things in different contexts. But in academe, pomo can pretty much be equated with relativism. This term also means several different things, but all of them apply to pomo.

The relativism that makes me hostile to pomo is knowledge relativism or epistemological relativism. “All statements of fact are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere”. This stance can be applied to itself and immediately yields absurdity.

The other pomo relativism is aesthetic. “All value judgements of art are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere.” In other words, there are no timeless aesthetic pronouncements. Bach and the Beatles (whose work I love right here, right now) are not timeless greats. There are people now, and there will be people in the future, who don't like them. No canon deserves any respect. There are no classics outside of marketing lingo and university syllabi. High culture and low culture are contingent constructs. No art critic has more authority than another.

I'm an aesthetic relativist who opposes post-modernism. My aesthetic stance isn't grounded in the humanities. It's based on a natural sciences perspective and a love of genre literature that rejects the concept of high culture. Aesthetic opinions are not traits of the artworks themselves. They are traits of people. And all people are are historically and culturally situated.

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One word: Sokal hoax. OK, two words: the Sokal hoax and postmodernism. Let me come in again. Among the things you should be thinking about are the Sokal hoax (and a fantastic devotion to the Pope).

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 13 Jun 2016 #permalink

I agree with Martin on both points.

You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. There is such a thing as objective knowledge, and anyone who thinks otherwise reveals himself to be at best a pseudo-intellectual poseur.

OTOH, canon is a concept that is necessarily culture-dependent. Being a Westerner, I have virtually no knowledge of Chinese poets, but as a native speaker of English I would include Chaucer and Donne as important writers. Someone educated in China might well wonder who Chaucer and Donne are, but be able to name several Chinese poets contemporary to or older than these who would be considered important. Martin would probably name some Swedish writers whom, again, I would be unfamiliar with because I am not literate in Swedish.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 Jun 2016 #permalink

Eric, unless you are literate in Middle English, you would be reading Chaucer in translation as well.

I remember studying Chaucer in secondary school and trying to wade through the original Middle English - it was a challenge, to say the least. Beowulf - no chance; Old English is completely impenetrable to me.

By John Massey (not verified) on 13 Jun 2016 #permalink

I'm with Philip K. Dick on the limits of relativism:

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

On the other hand, aesthetics is a matter of taste. Cultures have their canons, those things which one appreciates as a member of the culture and often to indicate one's social status. I remember reading a book on the Franks after the fall of Rome. No one remembered the great Latin poets anymore. Instead, one indicated one's place in the ruling glass by eating great quantities of meat.

Ignorant theorising.

In practice, there are some aesthetic absolutes that would impress people from any culture at any time.

Example: Angkor Wat.

By John Massey (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

Nah. That just means that people are impressed by tall buildings. Which ones an individual prefers is a matter of taste.

John@4: True. English has changed so rapidly that the editions of Shakespeare I read in school were usually annotated with definitions of several words that either disappeared from the language in the ~400 years since, or have completely different usages today. Shakespeare himself is credited with coining several thousand words, about half of which are still used in modern English.

The issue arises in other languages as well. An infamous example in Chinese isThe Lion-Eating Poet in a Stone Den, a 93-word essay in which every syllable in Mandarin is pronounced shi (the tones vary). The author was mocking the idea of a phonetic (alphabetic or kana) representation of Chinese characters.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

Spoken Chinese has a strange relationship to the characters though. I often see Chinese people in conversation writing with their finger on the palm of one hand in order to clear up misunderstandings. The spoken language can't really convey complicated arguments unambiguously without support from the written language.

I often see Chinese people in conversation writing with their finger on the palm of one hand in order to clear up misunderstandings.

Japanese people sometimes do this as well--including when they are talking to Chinese people in English. This is because Japanese uses kanji (traditional Chinese characters) and kana, so there are many ways to spell a given sound. Hence the continued use of business cards in Japan (and presumably also China): to specify which of the many possible spellings of somebody's name is the correct one.

The problem occurs in English, too. I spell my given name with a C, but some people insist on a K, and some even use both. (Ditto Swedish in this case--most Swedes use a K, but the famous company is Ericsson.) I and Y are frequently interchangeable, some letters may be doubled, and so forth.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

The counter to the argument about characters being specially suited to Mandarin, as advanced by John DeFrancis or Victor Mair of Language Log, is that Modern Standard Mandarin has so many homophones and monosyllables =because= of the characters. I don't speak any Chinese language, or read any script derived from Chinese characters, so don't have a strong opinion myself.

Sean@11: I don't buy that argument, because in Japanese the kanji do not necessarily represent a single syllable. (The kana do, but that is because they are intended to be phonetic.)

OTOH, Vietnamese switched from Chinese characters to a Latin-derived alphabet in the 17th century, but they nonetheless retain a tendency toward monosyllables, even in loan words, e.g., some of the meals I had when I visited that country included a sa lat, and one could choose a so da as a beverage. Although it is not part of the same language family, Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language (they have six tones to Mandarin's four). And Vietnamese has its share of homophones, e.g., depending on tones pho ga could be translated to English as either "chicken noodle soup" or "Depot Street".

Cantonese, like Vietnamese, has a greater variety of sounds than Mandarin (the former had eight tones and, AFAICT, more possible syllable endings), and they still use the traditional characters (not even the simplified characters adopted in mainland China under Mao). The aforementioned Lion-Eating Poet essay is much more intelligible in Cantonese than Mandarin. So there has to be more to the multiplicity of Mandarin homophones than just the characters.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

It's not a matter of building height or preferences. There are certain aesthetic absolutes that are universal. The ancient Greeks knew that (e.g. see 'golden ratio'), and so do professional photographers, who follow certain 'golden rules' when they compose photographs (e.g. see 'the rule of thirds'). Numerous studies have been done on which human faces other humans find to be most attractive, regardless of 'race' - the attractive quality is symmetry. It is postulated that symmetrical features signal good health and lack of inbreeding.

Find me one person who has been to Angkor Wat, who was not moved by the beauty of it. I have never found one among the many people I know who have been there, and these have all been people who had little to no understanding of the culture that created it.

#12 - Traditional characters are still used in Mandarin-speaking Taiwan. The problem arises in technical discussions that Taiwanese, Hong Kongers and Mainlanders all use different coined written expressions for the same things. Also, there are indeed a multiplicity of monosyllabic words with the same tone but different meanings, which have to be understood from the context. But then, English speakers are in no position to sneer at that.

By John Massey (not verified) on 14 Jun 2016 #permalink

Meanwhile, go here for endless fun...or depression at the thought that tenured academics are actually paid for writing all of this post-modern critical theory stuff.

"Humanoid robots are the vanguard of posthuman sexism, and are being developed within a reactionary rhetorical climate."

"Findings show that the female genitals are perceived as a special body part connected to sexuality and intimacy." Except for the Chinese lady artists who perceive theirs as something to hold a calligraphy brush with, presumably. Erm, that's not suitable for work, by the way.

There is a seemingly never-ending stream of this sort of brilliant 'critical theory' insight.

You might be thinking 'You can't make this stuff up', but obviously someone can, and gets paid to do it - from your taxes.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

A cool thing about critical theory is its paranoid / self-reinforcing worldview. If someone says that critical theory is useless, then critical theory states that this is evidence that it is necessary.

I was reading recently about a woman in an Australian engineering journal (they like to highlight women who are pursuing successful careers in engineering as a way to try to encourage more women to take up engineering as a profession) - this woman had, as she put it, been 'kicked out' of her Arts course at university. You have to do something really bad to be kicked out of Arts - it's basically the default option for people who have no vocation to do anything else or whose academic results are not good enough to get into anything else. I'm assuming she was 'kicked out' because she had a low tolerance for all of the critical theory nonsense and made her views abundantly clear. I can't think why else she would be booted out - in Arts, lack of performance is not a sufficient reason, you just keep endlessly repeating units until you finally get somewhere, or get sick of paying tuition fees and being a perpetual student, give up and go away. But no, she said she was 'kicked out'.

Anyway, having been kicked out, she enrolled instead in the Western Australian School of Mines (a very respectable adjunct to W.A.s second ranked university), graduated, got the requisite post-grad working experience, and now has a very successful career as an underground mine manager. That is a responsible job that is neither easy nor comfortable, but she seems to be loving it.

So - kicked out of Arts, but now a very successful mining engineer. I'd say they did her a favour by ejecting her from their elite caste.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

Razib Khan has described critical theory as 'socially destructive fiction'. I don't think that's too harsh.

Worryingly to me, one of the areas where the elite members of the caste seek to insert themselves in order to appear to be gainfully employed is in education policy. I am all in favour of creating school environments which discourage bullying, including of LGBT kids - I am sensitive and sympathetic to that issue, but the critical theory exponents who have got hold of this appear to be embarked on a path that creates conflict and enhances differences, rather than creating environments which enable such people to feel physically safe, fully integrated and part of the 'normal' mainstream.

It's not constructive at all. Waffling about gendered robots, when most robots won't be remotely humanoid anyway, is really unhelpful.

Ultimately, I suspect that all of the proponents of this fictive gobbledegook will be exposed as the frauds and bludgers that they are (one such was recently 'terminated' at Australia's highest ranked university), but they are doing a lot of damage in the process.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

A cool thing about critical theory is its paranoid / self-reinforcing worldview.

"Cool" isn't the word I'd use here. You see a similar dynamic in religious extremists of all stripes. A sizable fraction of the world's problems can be traced to people who take their religion a bit too seriously.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Jun 2016 #permalink

I was at war against the pomos in college decades ago when they were ascendant. The example I used that always tied them up pretty badly was female genital mutilation, because it forced them to choose between cultural relativism and any degree of feminism. Not a single one of them ever had a good answer to that. Anyone here who runs into pomos regularly is invited to use that example on them and see what they have to say.

The point being that the core positions of feminism are based on objective facts and universals that are incompatible with postmodern epistemology. Some of those objective facts are the texts of the written laws in various societies about the rights of women as compared to men. And one of the universals is the biology of pain.

It's on that basis that I quickly concluded, against the prevailing opinions at the time, that postmodernism is obscurantist and immoral.

Sokal is also one of my heroes.


Aesthetic judgements are subjective, and ultimately dependent on some combination of a) the structure and functioning of human brains and b) enculturation. Facts about the physical universe as ascertained by science, are objective and independent of the individual and culture. Clearly there is an objective basis for much diversity of aesthetic experience and judgement, as individual brain and upbringings vary widely.

Kaleberg @ 5: I've used an abbreviated version of that quote for years without knowing it originated with Philip K. Dick: "Reality doesn't go away if you stop believing in it."


Martin @ 16: Excellent insight that critical theory is self-reinforcing and paranoid. I'd always had the sense that it was vaguely cult-like, as a closed system with no way out; but your description is better because it points out the mechanism.

"Aesthetic judgements are subjective" - so you don't believe in evolution, then.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Jun 2016 #permalink

If aesthetics (in part) arise from the structure and functioning of the human brain (which you can't possibly know, because no one understands how the human brain functions, and we might never know, but what is known is that there is some range of variation in the structure of the brain - for example, female brains are structured somewhat differently from male brains; Australian Aboriginal brains are structured somewhat differently from European brains) (but it seems like a reasonable guess), then aesthetics are at least in part hard-wired in the human brain, not enculturated, even between people who have somewhat differing brain structures.

Charles Darwin performed an amazing experiment, which no one has since attempted to fully replicate, although there have been partical replications which have confirmed what he found - he gathered data on human facial expressions from all over the world. What he showed is that all humans everywhere express the same feelings using the same facial expressions. These are very different from chimpanzee facial expressions; they appear to be uniquely human (although we have no way of knowing about archaic humans), and they are not enculturated - they are hard wired in the human brain.

There is nothing subjective about that. Likewise, there are certain aesthetic universals which appear to be hard-wired, in which case they are not 'subjective judgements' mediated by culture.

By John Massey (not verified) on 19 Jun 2016 #permalink

G, #21: Cultural relativism is a tricky term because it covers a lot of different things. Often it is taken to mean "It's OK for Norwegians to beat their wives and children, because it's part of their culture". I oppose this position. But then it can equally mean "a kurta kameez outfit is just as appropriate for formal occasions as an English three-piece suit". And this position I support strongly.

My own position is basically this: culture is relative but if you oppose anything in the UN Declaration of Human Rights then you're a benighted holdover from the past.