Some problems with postmodernism

Despite its contributions, postmodernism is also the subject of much criticism. One of the most recurrent is its tendency to nihilism, that is, to pleasure for nothing. Postmodern deconstruction may be efficient at demonstrating the randomness of many of our concepts, but it can lead us to a point where we have nothing but deconstruction. We find that the world is made up of dichotomies or binary oppositions that cancel out, without any logic, leaving us with an immense void.

Another weakness of postmodernism is its relativism. In the absence of an absolute truth that can be objectively identified one gets subjective opinions. There is an expectation of postmodern theorists that this leads to higher levels of tolerance, but ironically the opposite is true. Without objective truths individuals are isolated in their subjective opinions, which represents a division of people, not an approximation. Moreover, postmodernism leads to a concern that all claims may be attempts at usurpation of power.

But the main weakness of postmodernism is its internal inconsistency. As mentioned in previous posts, postmodernism can be defined as unbelief about metanarratives. But would not postmodernism itself be a metanarrative? Why would this metanarrative be above criticism?

Another way of defining postmodernism is by its claim that there is no absolute truth. But is not this an absolute truth? Is it not an absolute truth, according to postmodernism, that there is no absolute truth? This circular and contradictory reasoning demonstrates the internal fragility of postmodernism. Finally, what happens if the hermeneutics of suspicion is turned against postmodernism itself? What gives us assurance that postmodern authors do not themselves have a secret political agenda hidden behind their speeches?

It is possible that postmodernists do not really feel affected by this kind of criticism, if they are consistent with the perception that there is no real world out there, or that “there is nothing outside the text”, but that the Reality is produced by discourses. That is: conventional theorists seek a truth that corresponds to reality. Postmodernists wonder what kind of reality their speeches are capable of creating.

Be that as it may, in spite of the preached intertextuality (the notion that texts refer only to other texts, and nothing objective outside the texts), postmodern theorists continue to write in the hope that we will understand what they write. Moreover, postmodernists live in a world full of meanings that are if not objective are at least intersubjective. Perhaps our language is not transparent, but that does not mean that it is opaque either. Clearly we are able to make ourselves understood reasonably well through words.

As C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”. This critique fits very well to postmodernism.

Main postmodern theorists and their main concepts

Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.

One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.

Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.

In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.

The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.

“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.


Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”

How to think like an individualist

Postmodernism is disposed of incisively. “Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge on the rest of the world,” Malik writes. But Western philosophy does not replicate the ways and methods of Western imperialism. Its criteria and methods, but also its values, are completely different. So is its relationship to the non-European world, which is not one of subjugation and annexation, but of interaction and accommodation. The key concepts of Western secular modernity that are hardest to contest – universalism, democracy and individual liberty – were not, in reality, products of Western imperialism, and are actually not compatible with it. Anti-colonialism in modern times is as much a product of Western philosophy as of non-European thought, or more so. There are also other key Western ideas, such as Marx’s critique of capitalism, that have demonstrated an impressively wide appeal in every part of the globe but remain as much contested today in the West as anywhere else.

Kenan Malik stole all my ideas. I guess I should start applying for insurance salesman positions, eh? Read the rest, by Jonathan Israel. But wait, there’s more.

Any nation that has an official religious establishment faces the problem of “standardizing” the religion to satisfy the demands of the establishment. Note that the law [passed by Austria’s parliament forcing Austrian Muslim organizations to use a German-language Qur’an] doesn’t outright ban competing translations of the Qur’an, but gives the official imprimatur of the Austrian government to an approved translation. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Austrians to distinguish the rights-protecting and religious-establishment-establishing functions of the state, and to dump the latter over the side. But I suspect it hasn’t occurred to the Austrian Parliament because it hasn’t quite occurred to Austrian Muslims, either. There are perks to be had if you accept government sponsorship of your religion: once you’re enticed by them, it becomes hard not to do a deal with the Devil to keep them in place. I don’t know about the standardized German translation, but my translation of the Qur’an suggests that seduction is the Devil’s AOS.

This is from the infamous Irfan Khawaja over at Policy of Truth. Read it.

Telling the Truth and Tarentino, Liberals, the Secretary of State, and the President

I have a liberal friend with whom I have fairly frequent serious discussions. He thinks of himself as a moderate liberal, even a centrist because his owns guns and his guns are dear to him. Yet, he voted for Obama and he can give a spirited defense of every aspect of Obama’s policies and actions. That’s a test, in my book.

He told me once, but only once, that the administration’s program of at-a-distance- assassination-of-the-untried was not a problem for him. He dos not see how assassinating an American citizen, for example, on the presidential say-so, could be a problem, ethical or judicial. He does not discern a slippery slope. That too is a test.

He and I have had repeatedly two bases of disagreement. First, we have different values, of course. Thus, he insists that it’s fine for him to use the vote to take my money by force in order to give it to someone that he, my friend, thinks deserves it more than I do because he, the other guy, does not have health insurance.

I disagree.

Note that this is an actual example of a fundamental value difference because my liberal buddy does not have to go there to achieve the same results. He could try, for example, to convince me to give up some money on the basis of expediency: It’s unpleasant, even messy to have the uninsured dying on my front lawn for lack of medical care. (As they do all the time, of course.) Or, he could persuade me on fellow-human grounds. He does not feel like doing either because, I think, he has no moral qualm about taking my earnings by force for a cause he judges good. That’s a big difference between us. Continue reading