Why I’ve decided to leave the Transformative Studies program

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In between everything else, I’ve been (see here and here) reading Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992) by Pauline Marie Rosenau. She does a magnificent job of highlighting the inconsistencies of post-modernism. She mostly waits until her concluding chapter to comment on these and though her critique is devastating, she is charitable towards post-modernism—much more charitable than I am inclined to be. Of course, as she observes, post-modernism is immune to the standards of criticism which its advocates so gleefully apply to modernism.

But one of the highlights both of post-modernism—and of complexity theory—is the recognition that reality differs from individual to individual, that the feminist notions of social location and of partial perspective should in fact be extended to a concept of partial reality. Of course, post-modernists leap from that into sweeping generalizations, because they don’t need to be consistent.

But Rosenau offers this criticism of post-modernism, which I see as needing a fuller consideration in Transformative Studies:

Post-modern views of reality are reproached for some of the same shortcomings as idealist philosophical conceptions of reality. Critics argue that debate over issues such as the existence of an independent reality are of interest only to post-modernists (and other intellectuals) who, insulated from reality, never personally experience the violence, terror, and degradation prevalent in modern society. They point to the brutal presence of an “obviously existing reality” that solidifies around poverty, starvation, AIDS, drugs, and gang warfare. Only if one’s daily life, daily “lived” reality, is not harsh and unpleasant could one conceive of reality as entirely a mental construction. (pp. 111-112)

There is a certain detachment from “obviously existing reality” in much of the focus on the self I see in the discussions I have had in both my classes this semester and in that focus’ attendant assumption that the self “makes” reality. And it is amazing how scholars who theorize about a multi-faceted reality, varying from individual to individual, are often so anxious to generalize from their own experience to everyone else.

This focus on the self is a way of minimizing problems of social inequality that are uncomfortable to deal with—because they challenge our cultural myths and values—and a way to obscure the hypocrisy those scholars who live comfortable lives while pontificating on the ultimate nature of reality. We seem far too anxious to associate difficulty in life with psychological condition and not nearly willing enough to consider “obviously existing reality,” the circumstances in which people find themselves.

This focus on the self reaffirms the individualist bent of the hegemonic Western value system, effectively casting blame on the individual for not having a “positive attitude,” i.e. not thinking the “right” thoughts, while immunizing society from challenge. Rosenau finds that post-modernism can neither be classified as left- or as right-wing, but the project of shielding social values (or anything else) from judgment inevitably upholds them, and thus is complicit in conservative theorist Richard Weaver’s “tyrannizing image,” a postulated central ideology in every culture that is guarded by a coercive hierarchy based on allegiance to that ideology.

I am reminded of a child who offers the refutation that s/he didn’t “mean it,” implying that his or her intentions are being obscured by the consequences of his or her actions. Post-modernism is oblivious to its consequences. And I think that Transformative Studies takes a similar risk.