Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.
I’m still churning through Pauline Marie Rosenau’s book Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992) and I have to say that the overwhelming impression of post-modernists here is of a child who doesn’t want to do something, who expends all kinds of energy and ingenuity coming up with an elaborate excuse for not doing it when if he’d just have gotten to work and done it, it would be done already.
Post-modernists actually have some valid criticisms of positivism. Quantitative analysis is superficial. Statistical analysis does “prove” by its failure to disprove (assuming a false dichotomy between disproof and truth). In human experimentation, it does rely on deception, leading resentful research “subjects” who catch on to mislead researchers in turn. It does assume a single universal reality that can be perceived and represented, when at best, as feminists argue, we have only partial perspectives, determined largely by our social locations and when, in fact, complexity theory suggests a more multifaceted reality—where things really are not for me the same as they are for you.
But the failings of positivism do not prove post-modernism. Post-modernists consistently resort to special pleading, asserting that the logic they skillfully use to show how positivism fails by its own standards should not in turn be applied against post-modernism. Post-modernism immunizes itself from reason and even from reality.
Critics argue that if all norms and values are equal, as many post-modernists claim, then it is impossible to prioritize or compare values, to make choices between moral alternatives. It follows that post-modernism does nothing to prohibit “the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power” (Cantor 1989: 2368-69). (pp. 115-116)
Indeed, if “all norms and values are equal,” then why do post-modernists so often reject theories or methods as a form of guilt by association with modernism? Too often, in Rosenau’s depiction, post-modernists seem to depict modernism (which includes positivism) and post-modernism in a dichotomy of good versus evil, right versus wrong. But because they don’t have to be consistent, that’s okay for them.
Rosenau writes, for example, that “Post-modern architecture revels in constructing buildings that at first glance cannot ‘reasonably’ be expected to stand” (p. 127). In a footnote attached to that sentence, she writes,
It might be assumed that architecture is immune to the extreme forms of post-modernism because buildings must respect the laws of science relating to gravity in order to be viable. But the avant garde of post-modern architecture today takes pride in “knowing nothing about materials” and in being willing to build “with chewing gum.” One is said to have “built an officers’ club, and the roof caved in during the dedication ceremonies.” In other cases post-modern designs are abandoned because “they simply can’t be built” (Seabrook 1991: 127, 129). (p. 127)
On page 128, Rosenau writes that “Post-modernism . . . argues that each situation is different and calls for special understanding.” On the very next page she quotes William Corlett (1989) writing that “[Reason’s] reasonable ways are . . . always brutally unfair to someone or other.” I guess a sweeping generalization is okay when post-modernists do it.
This kind of thing crops up again and again and again in Rosenau’s work. I have to be profoundly grateful to her. She has the patience to wade through all this hypocrisy and hold it up to a light where any reasonable person would simply walk away. The trouble with that, and the reason Rosenau’s work is so important, is that this “walking away” from absurdity is very likely the reason that post-modernists have been able to get as far as they have.