Postmodernism : Historical roots and contemporary impact
#1
The references and text below are archived from a Nirmukta Facebook thread with edits for clarity and context.

A Postmodernism 101 would be hard to put together, largely because 'postmodernism' seems to be a post-hoc catch-all umbrella term for several amorphous 'Others' groupings that make it a point to defy categorization, rather than a unified school of thought in its own right. What is attempted in the below is a stub for a 101 resource, in two parts : (i) historical context of the emergence of postmodernism (ii) legitimate concerns about misapplication of postmodernist frameworks. Examples will be drawn from recent events and the Indian context wherever possible.

Part 1: Historical context of the emergence of postmodernism

'Postcolonialism' and 'postmodernism' end up being treated as near-synonymous given the near contemporaneity in their emergence and the considerable overlap of their ranks of leading thinkers. One of the most recognizable leading thinkers in this regard is Edward Said.

The subject matter of Postmodernism seems to be cultural expression and standards (or their disappearance) whereas that of Postcolonialism seems to be cultural identities and relations. Hence the centrality of critical theory in Postmodernism and the centrality of subaltern studies in Postcolonialism, and the shared interest of both in multiculturalism.

Postmodernist stirrings can be discerned in the interwar cultural scene itself whereas the political context for anything seriously Postcolonial wouldn't occur until the postwar period. Further, Postmodernism seems first of all a literary and then cultural movement, rather than a school of studying a 'world order' itself as Postcolonialism is.

'Cosmopolitanism' as conceptalized by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah seems to be a framework that is less limited by historical determinism of sorts and allows a more genuine self-determination in terms of both one's place and voice in the world rather than being defined in terms of exclusions and past oppressions. While East-West categories still provide the terms of reference and framing narratives in Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitanism seems to more fully acknowledge a multipolar world as the stage in which layered identities are assumed. Here are some earlier discussions on how pluralism maybe cherished without lapsing into postmodernist indifference, and how East-West dichotomies continue to persist even as Orientalism has at least formally fallen out of favor.

A useful function of postmodernist critiques is the examination of ethical problems left unaddressed in Enlightenment thought (the thought which lies at the core of the 'modernism' which 'post'modernism is defined chronologically with reference to) for various historical reasons like the Enlightenment's Eurocentrism, its contemporaneity with colonial expansion and its lack of a 'broad base' given the almost exclusively elite origins of its leading thinkers. A better appreciation of how the work of several thinkers considered 'postmodernist' in their orientation, can provide philosophical backing to what is called 'intersectional humanist' mobilization, can be gained via the documentary Examined Life.
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#2
Part 2: Legitimate concerns about misapplication of postmodernist frameworks

As a framing example, consider the ongoing debate about US intervention in Syria. Some of the questions here are "In what way are chemical weapons more obviously WMDs than cluster-bombs?" (i.e. how mass media -or state-run media- defines categories and 'manufactures consent', which is a subject of critical theory) and "How justified is US action pending (or irrespective of) Arab League support?" (i.e. to what extent is treatment of the US as an arbiter an instance of neo-imperialist overreach, which is a key postcolonial question). The question "What is the most reliable method for detecting the use of nerve agents in a site?" which is central to the debate, is a question of comparing different detection methods, in which any postmodernist or postcolonial comment would be a distraction. With that in mind here are some areas where postmodernist thought which had utility in some contexts can lead to avoidable obfuscation when overextended to others.

(i) Studying the role of language in making certain categories seem natural when they are in fact constructed (i.e. 'normalizing' certain categories) is a useful postmodern contribution, especially while studying gender socialization (notably by Judith Butler) or that matter, while asking what to treat as a WMD and what to treat as a 'conventional weapon'. A naive overextension of this of course would be to assume that there is nothing that is naturally occurring and 'objective' and everything is but a matter of 'subjective' construction, which before we know it can lead to historic revisionism (What is an 'actual record' when all we have are 'narratives'?) and science denial. Slavoj Zizek offers a light-hearted take on the flipside of the post-structuralist skepticism about language and its relationship with reality here. (Zizek and Butler insist that their run-ins are good-natured though.)

A more commonly encountered example closer home is the chant that 'Hinduism is not a religion' with the plaint that 'religion' is a Western construct.

(ii) The Bush II era campaigns of 'bringing democracy to the Middle East' (and their uncanny historical precursors in Napoleon's campaigns of conquest ostensibly in the service of spreading republican government in the world) are cited as grounds for the poscolonial unease with with 'export of democracy'. However, the unease with the forcible 'export of democracy' is often accompanied with a skepticism about liberal democracy itself as a Eurocentric construct that can at best be an artificial graft elsewhere. The notion of Church-State separation is itself dismissed as unrealistic by postcolonialist thinkers such as Ashis Nandy. As we can see, Nandy's worldview seems to be skeptical not only about 'Western' secularism but more broadly about all of the killer apps of prosperity as listed by Niall Ferguson. Polemicists like Arundhati Roy sometimes seem almost to lapse into romantic primitivism during their vociferous opposition to the West's 'killer apps' which they say is also proving lethal to life-sustaining ecologies.

Amartya Sen offers a response to Nandy's skepticism about secularism in this masterly essay 'Secularism and Its Discontents'.

(iii) Finally, and perhaps of most interest to those involved in freethought advocacy, is the postmodernist propensity for 'science denial' or at any rate, mistrust of scientists, based on the notion that Science is but one more 'constructed' reality whose enforcement is in the interest of the elite establishment. Prof. Dawkins offers this one-minute response to deniers of an objective reality and upholders of 'other ways of knowing'.
Here is another defense of science against a postmodernist onslaught (articulated, ironically, by someone who's anything but a 'mainstream' scientist).

None of this is to say that the lack of access to scientific education and the pending projects of inclusiveness in campuses is not a concern. In this context, this disambiguation provided by Prof. Sarit Kumar Das of IIT Chennai between 'traditional knowledge' and 'ancient science', is especially timely.
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#3
One interesting pattern I see often is that commentaries from a nominally priviledged class will remain resolutely silent on cruelties perpetuated by members of a nominally oppressed class, cruelties which often target the oppressed class but sometimes target the privileded class as well.

For a recent example, there was an account by a while woman visiting India who spoke frankly[1] about the sexual violence she had to face, which was then criticized for perpetuating oppression[2][3], by many Western and Indian[4][5] commentaries. Not conincidentally, most of these also have an air of victim-blaming about them, but that's a different issue. Astoundingly, these are *all* people who say upfront that they have faced the same type of aggression that Michaela Cross faced, but then go on to criticize her post anyway! On the other hand, it was wholeheartedly embraced by pretty much every Indian woman I know with feminist leanings.

I often see postmodernism blamed for this tendency to never criticize a nominally oppressed culture, typically by equivocating about the difference between two cultures and reminding authors of their responsibility towards oppressed cultures[6]. (I keep using the word 'nominally', because her privilege as a white woman ultimately wasn't enough to avoid sexual violence in India, thought she was obviously priviledged relative to many, many Indian women.)

Another context in which this comes up all the time is criticizing Islamic culture, where liberal non-muslims will immediately start looking the other way.

[1] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
[2] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1025092
[3] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023426
[4] http://missionsharingknowledge.wordpress...rspective/
[5] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023884
[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comm...33445.html
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#4
Hi Arvind,

I don't think that the idea of "religion" being a problematic category is a necessarily "postmodern" claim. The poster making the claim, Arvind13 or whatever, was poorly parroting the claims in a book by the philosopher S.N. Balagangadhara, whose works themsleves are questionable at times (the scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam calls his works "peculiar.") The book in question, The Heathen in His Blindness, is not a bad read in itself if you can get past 500 pages interspersed with unnecessary tangents and rambling.

The two ideas that (1) there is no religion called Hinduism, and (2) that religion is a distorting term are not crazy though once you understand what exactly they are claiming.

I have seen Claim (1) get a lot of opposition here because it seems very similar to apologist claims that Hinduism is "special" and is a "way of life--" that it is "better" than mere religions like the Abrahamic ones. This is not what this postcolonial claim is saying at all.

The claim that there is no religion called Hinduism is made to remove the hegemony of Brahminical thought in religious studies about India and give voice to non-Brahmin beliefs and practices. As it is, concepts such as karma or moksha don't have much credence among Dalits and others. The Puranic deities are also paid less attention to. Dalits also often have their own priests-- such as the Madigas do-- and don't use Brahminical ritual. To envelope Dalits in Brahminical hegemony makes little sense, and this is Richard King's argument in Orientalism and Religion. A more concise version of King's work can be found in a paper, Orientalism and the Modern Myth of Religion.

This goes for "Hindu" philosophy too. In the book Unifying Hinduism, Nicholson shows how there was no conception of astika philosophies (consisting of Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Samkhya) until the 17th century philosopher Vijnanabhikshu, who had a motive for unifying these philosophies. This explains why Adi Sankara's greatest opponents were the Mimamsins, not the Buddhists. As far as Sankara was concerned, both were equally opponents.

The idea of a unified HIndu religion is most certainly a result of a 19th century Indian middle class which forged a unified entity "with an eye toward Christianity," as Wendy Doniger put it.

Claim (2) is a bit more complicated, but it mostly has to do with how people who use the term "religion" also use the baggage that comes with it-- assuming that all "religions" have "scriptures" which are interpreted exactly how a Protestant literalist would interpret the Bible, have a "purpose" like salvation that they strive to, etc. etc. Most religious studies professors I have talked to tell me that they use the word religion as a heuristic, understanding such limitations. Claim (2) is not intended to be used as a shield for criticism, however-- that's not the purpose. The Invention of World Religions by Masuzawa and The Meaning and the End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith , along with The Invention of Religion in Japan were used in a religious studies class I audited to study these claims.
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#5
(01-Sep-2013, 08:46 AM)arvindiyer Wrote: A useful function of postmodernist critiques is the examination of ethical problems left unaddressed in Enlightenment thought (the thought which lies at the core of the 'modernism' which 'post'modernism is defined chronologically with reference to) for various historical reasons like the Enlightenment's Eurocentrism, its contemporaneity with colonial expansion and its lack of a 'broad base' given the almost exclusively elite origins of its leading thinkers.

PZ Myers seems to be echoing that in his article where he says post-modernism isn’t so bad - http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2...sm-please/
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