Liberalism Past: the Secret Murder of Postmodernism

By Outis Philalithopoulos, who met an untimely end five years ago, and now “wears the chains he forged in life” as an economist.

In the previous episode of this series, the ghost Outis was guided by the Spirit of Liberalism Past to 1996, where a younger Outis had gone to hear a popular liberal speaker.  Afterward, his girlfriend Corinne was eager to catch a talk by a postmodern scholar she held in high esteem; eventually, Outis agreed to come along.

The speaker was a critical theory/political science professor named Wendy Brown, and she was presenting themes from her recent book, States of Injury.

I tried to keep from glancing over at where Corinne and the young Outis were sitting.  But my mind kept wandering, and Brown’s style hardly aided my efforts to stay focused on her lecture.

The first ten minutes of her talk were spent explaining why her book had not been written, the boundaries it would not respect, how not only the first description she gave of her book but also the second were “disingenuous,” with such a cascade of negations that her prefatory remarks alone contained 2 no’s, 2 neither’s, 9 not’s, and 6 nor’s.

To me, it all started to seem hazy, but my ghostly companion must have been enjoying himself.  A person listening to Brown might have imagined that human thought was one colossal debate between Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, with Max Weber and Jean Baudrillard in supporting roles.  Meanwhile, the unappeased menace of Catharine McKinnon lurked on the horizon.

But then, something in what Brown was saying started to sound familiar:

Postmodern power is often characterized as decentered and diffuse even while it incessantly violates, transgresses, and resituates social boundaries; it […] irrigates through networks rather than consolidating in bosses and kings […]

We are today very susceptible to simply getting lost […] insofar as being lost means being without (fixed) means of orientation […]

Brown was describing a disorienting world without clear standards of truth.  But did she mean that the world was naturally like this, as Foucault seemed to believe, or did she see this “postmodern condition” as something the system had inflicted upon everyone, upon Allan Bloom as well as upon Al Franken?

In our efforts to “cope” with our “lost” condition in postmodernity, Brown explained that one strategy was fundamentalism, or “reactionary foundationalism.”  Quoting Feher and Heller, Postmodern Political Condition:

fundamentalists select one aspect of the dogma, one “text of foundation” with regard to which they declare all attempts at hermeneutics politically subversive.

That did sound like the fundamentalists I’d seen on TV.  “What’s hermeneutics?” I whispered to Foucault.  “Interpretation,” he whispered back.  Brown had more to say about fundamentalism.

Reactionary foundationalism is not limited to the political or intellectual Right, but emerges across the political spectrum from those hostile to what they take to be postmodern politcal decay and intellectual disarray.

What?  Apparently others were startled as well, because she immediately followed up on her point.

When these precepts “without which we cannot survive” issue from the intellectual or political Right, they are easy enough to identify as both reactionary and fundamentalist.  It is fairly clear what they oppose and seek to foreclose: inter alia, democratic conversation about our collective condition and future.  But when they issue from feminists or others on the “Left,” they are more slippery, especially insofar as they are posed in the name of caring about political things, caring about “actual women” or about womens’s “actual condition in the world” […]

So:  the Right is trying to stop us from thinking democratically about the future, and the Left cares about real problems and real women – so why is it a problem that we believe that we are right?

I want to suggest that much North Atlantic feminism partakes deeply of […] ressentiment and that this constitutes a good deal of our nervousness about moving toward an analysis as thoroughly Nietzschean in its wariness about truth as postfoundational political theory must be.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  How are we swimming in ressentiment?  Doesn’t she mean ?  Why should our analysis be thoroughly Nietzschean?  Why should it be “wary” about the truth?  Why feminists?

What [is it about] identity’s desire for recognition that seem[s] often to breed a politics of recrimination and rancor, of culturally dispersed paralysis and suffering […]?

I found Brown hard to understand.  And the things I did understand, I wasn’t sure I liked.

She closed by saying that the Left should

give up substituting Truth and Morality for politics.  Are we willing to engage in struggle rather than recrimination, to develop our faculties rather than revenge our subordination with moral and epistemological gestures, to fight for a world rather than conduct process on the existing one?

The audience began to applaud, who knows with how much sincerity.  I was annoyed, and I knew one person who I was pretty sure had understood the talk better than I had.

“Michel,” I said urgently.  He turned to me.

“There are two things I don’t understand.  First, Brown criticizes the Left for believing in myths like “truth is always on the side of the damned and excluded,” and “truth is clean of power and always positioned to reproach power,” and advocates instead “living and working without such myths, without insisting that our truths are less partial and more moral than theirs.”

“Yes,” Foucault agreed.

“But isn’t she insisting precisely that her postmodern, Nietzschean ideas about politics and rhetoric are less mythical, more true than those of the less reflective people she criticizes?”

“Ah,” he said.  “I understand.  And your other question?”

“When she says we need to do all these things, give up on ressentiment, make our analysis more Nietzschean, stop talking about absolute truth – why should we?  Once you and she demonstrate to everyone that morality and truth are inseparable from power, and people merely engage in ‘wars of position’ and ‘amoral contests about the just and good’ – why would anyone bother to use postmodernist rhetoric?”

“Well…” he began.

I cut him off, with some heat.  “Why wouldn’t they just continue to talk about morality and truth the way they do now?  If all that matters is winning, and morality and truth help one side to win, then according to you, why care if they are myths?”

“Right,” Foucault said, his eyes sparkling.  “About those two questions…”

He was not alarmed by my questions in the least, and I feel sure he would have addressed my doubts.  But I stopped paying attention to him as Corinne and the young Outis walked toward me.  The moment I had been dreading had come.

Corinne’s eyes were shining.  “Did you see what she was saying?  Wasn’t it brilliant?  And she’s so courageous, willing to criticize even Left political movements that she identifies with…”

Outis looked reluctant to disappoint her.  “She’s definitely very intelligent… It’s just that…”

Corinne froze.  “What?” she said in a suddenly much more subdued voice.

He seemed to be gathering his courage.  “It’s just that I don’t see why it has to be so complicated.  Why can’t she just say what we ought to do?”

Corinne retorted, “But don’t you see – that’s the problem.  Smart people have always been trying to tell people what is true and what to think.  It’s a form of power.  And she doesn’t want to fall into that trap.”

“Right,” Outis said, “but it feels like she sees the whole world as ringed by traps, so that everything a person could possibly say might somehow be wrong.”

“But Outis,” Corinne said, “lots of things people say really are problematic.  Lots of times their wording shows habits of thought that are precisely the ones we can recognize as having underpinned horrible things like colonialism.”

“Does that mean we’re all going to have to talk like her?” Outis muttered.

“What do you mean, like her?  What’s so bad about the way she talks?”

“It’s like she believes we’re all under surveillance by a Great and Powerful Monster.  And so she has to speak in code so that that neither the Monster nor anyone else will be able to prove that she’s opposing it.”

“You’re making it sound completely childish!” Corinne said with indignation.

“Well, maybe it is!” Outis said, his voice rising.

I turned to the Spirit in anguish.

“Leave me!” I cried. “Take me back, haunt me no longer!”

He looked at me with surprising gentleness in his eyes.  “There are two shadows more,” he said, “that you must see; and yet, a respite will give you space to consider the points of fixity, of immobilization, in your position, so you can begin to see them as elements in a strategy…”

And with these words, he and everything else vanished, and I found myself alone in the abyssal vale.  There were things then that I did not wish to remember, and I forced my mind onto other topics.

“Postmodernism,” I repeated darkly to myself.  Even the word sounds pretentious.  What does it mean, anyway?

It seemed to be in opposition to “modernism,” which in turn meant how people in the early twentieth century often believed that humanity could work toward absolute truth, and that current Western society represented the culmination of historical progress.  For reasons Brown seemed to think were obvious, modernism was not good, and so it had been replaced by the “postmodernism” that had bestrode the academic world like a colossus.  Postmodernist irony, cultural relativism, skepticism about objective truth – in various guises, these could be seen not only in Foucault and Brown, but also in Franken, and echoes of it were present in Bloom’s critique.

So who killed it? And why was its death a secret?

If the most brilliant liberals of the 1990s had been convinced that all attempts to establish absolute truth were fundamentally flawed and problematic, how had we solved the problem and successfully created a set of fixed reference points for orienting ourselves?  Had we, paraphrasing Feher and Heller, chosen a dogma and “declared all attempts at interpreting it critically to be subversive”?

* * *

In the next episode, Outis moves closer to the present, and watches as the outlines of modern progressivism become more discernible.

Sources:  Wendy Brown’s book is online . 

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62 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    Yes, it is all about controlling the narrative. Either you rationalize, to encourage people to do what they already want to do, or you temporize, to avoid encouraging people to do what they already want to do. Depends on salesmanship and what direction you think the potential customer is leaning.

  2. craazyman

    is Al Camus going to make an appearance? He was a shoe salesman in i think Algiers. if anybody needs a pair of shoes, maybe he’s the guy to cut through all the yada yada. of course he was a wacko and he spoke French but if these oother Frenchh dudes are in there then . . .

    I’m not sure he really had a logical answer , and he was a bit florid in that French romatic way, but then i’m not sure logic even applies

    1. craazyboy

      I’ve come to realize, over the years, that the human brain is really a quantum computer, therefore we’ll never figure out what goes on in our and other people heads.

      Once you realize everything, physical and conceptual, is nothing but tiny little particles gyrating around with huge space between each one, it’s clear we’ll never know what’s really going on.

    2. DJG

      craazy: The problem is that Albert Camus, boulevardier and frenemy of J P Sartre, didn’t come up. He is a modernist, and I tend to doubt that he engaged in all of the crimes listed above. The problem with postmodernists is that they defined the problem incorrectly: Just because they wanted to dislodge T.S. Eliot from the canon, all of a sudden we had to discover that truth is multiple and a progressive view of history is wrong. An inconvenient problem is that the modernists had already told us that. Hell, what is Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold about? And he was a Victorian.

      It is said that Nietsche, by then mad from syphilis, went to Turin, in Italy, where he was cured by seeing a horse. This is problematical indeed.

      Postmodernism is a movement mainly designed so that people can get tenure, which is what haunts Outis’s memories. It is not an accident that the faculties of universities burgeoned as we found a sudden need to kill off Dead White Men, which meant the classics, because we all know that Herakleitos, Lucretius, and Michel de Montaigne all were potential Trump supporters.

      1. JTFaraday

        Dude, no. According to the tale, N saw a cart horse being flogged for refusing work. He threw his arms around it in protest, had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

        1. Carolinian

          Sounds like Nietzsche the philosopher encountered some RL and “couldn’t handle the truth.”

          Or, as the military types like to say, no battle plan survives first with the enemy.

          1. witters

            No, this is just wrong. You might start with Walter Kaufmann’s book on Nietzsche. Or Alexander Nehemas.

      2. Synapsid

        DJG,

        Some years ago I noticed that a young fellow who worked behind the counter at a place where I drank tea seemed down and maybe a little anxious. After a few days I asked if something was bothering him and learned that he had been reading French postmodernist philosophers and taking them seriously. I said:

        OK–stop. Get rid of that stuff. Read these two novels:

        Far Tortuga, by Peter Matthiessen

        The Bone People, by Keri Hulme.

        I was curious to see what effect a look at worlds people lived in would have. I don’t know what came of it; he went to work at a record shop, a job he’d been waiting for.

      3. Lambert Strether

        Exactly. Post-modernism destroyed humanities faculties nation-wide (which haunts my memories).

        Does anybody know how the purely academic politics of the post-modern takeover played out? My guess is very badly, given today’s Neoliberal U, but does anybody know?

  3. not a postmodernist

    look, I’m not going to say Brown is incredibly clear, but you are really going out of your way to bash academics whose job is to deal specifically with the intellectual heritage that is a big part of where we are, and nobody is making you listen to her (or European or Anglo-American philosophy, or high-energy physics, or advanced mathematics). You are working really hard to develop a “tu quoque” (the speaker’s own position undercuts itself) critique, which I don’t think even Brown herself would deny has some force. The problem is that you are missing the forest for the trees, which you often yourself seem to hint at: the right HAS learned to operate without any system of “absolute truth,” exclusively fighting “wars of position.” The left is much more stuck on finding the “truth,” despite the clear truth that this does not seem to be working. The exact problem Brown is trying to talk about is the one you are as well: how do we hold onto our values, which do have some force of “truth” to them, against an enemy that has overtly dispensed with any idea of truth whatsoever, and knows our weapons are ineffective? That’s what Brown (and Jameson, and others) call “postmodernism”–the state of capitalism today, with all its attendant management of perception and politics. Climate change discourse is a great example: how do we continue to fight for what most of us (including me) agree is the “truth” of climate change, against an enemy who has shown that our very attachment to the truth can be used against us?

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Don’t jump to conclusions in assuming the series is bashing Brown. There is more to come.

      The right wing only appears in the series in terms of its influence (or the influence of its specter) on progressive culture. Your own description of “the right” reads fairly reasonably if throughout your paragraph, you substitute “corporate lobbying” (cfr. your “capitalism today, with all its attendant management of perception and politics”) for “the right;” but it is less convincing if you are referring to, say, Trump supporters en masse.

    2. The Heretic

      I would clarify… the pro-corporate, pro-1% of the Right, and the cultural idealogue/ identity politics of the Left, have both used post-modernist arguments to disempower/confuse/de-legitmize their opponents. Both have the mindset, our side must win AND the other side must lose, regardless of the truth. Both are disgusting, intellectually degenerate movements, which have infected the minds of ‘serious people’ today, making intelligent wide-perspective discourse extremely difficult today.

  4. Uahsenaa

    I’d like to see Rorty. Maybe that’s yet to come. His sense of “getting over philosophy” always struck me as remarkably lucid, but perhaps that’s just my bias, since we’re both big fans of Kierkegaard.

    Perhaps it has something to do with my being mostly a scholar of Japanese, but I just don’t get why people get themselves in such a twist over absolute truth. If you look outside the West, it’s clear people have done alright by themselves, more or less, without ever bothering to worry what really is real and true.

    Anyway, been fun so far.

    1. Anna Zimmerman

      Wittgenstein said much the same thing, but his work is to ordinary philosophers what Xmas is to turkeys. He would have made twizzlers out of Ms Brown.

    2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I can’t remember the source, but I seem to remember Foucault himself saying something similar: something like, “I’m not saying that there is absolutely nothing that is objectively true, I’m just puzzled at why people are so obsessed with the concept.”

      1. Uahsenaa

        Don’t get me wrong, I like Foucault a lot–probably too much–the College de France lectures in particular, but you have to admit his writing can be pretty obscurantist at times, not Derrida bad, but a bit of a slog.

        I’ve also found in my teaching that students have a pretty low tolerance for genealogical analysis. They prefer everything to be systematic: x has three parts, each of which has four subsections, etc. That way everything is in nice, easily digestible chunks. Having to work their way through digressions, conceptual overlaps, comparative analyses of seemingly unrelated fields, it makes their eyes roll. In fact, one of the most worrying things I see in grad programs in the humanities these days is a parochial unwillingness to engage in anything that requires even a slight degree of philosophical sophistication. They want to be handed a theoretical framework that they can then apply to any old text.

        Blech.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          The two paragraphs of your comment can be seen as illustrating a tension the series is trying to explore. On the one hand, people like Foucault and Brown really are a lot of work to read through, and many postmodernists are worse. While some of this complexity is inherent in their projects, it often seems unnecessary, and regardless there are strongly elitist consequences.

          On the other hand, much of what is now rewarded (by the students you describe, on the Internet in general) involves giving up on any hope that the reader will interact creatively with the text.

        2. Lambert Strether

          That reminds me of the “either/or” vs. “both/and” problem that infest so much of our political discourse.

          This:

          They want to be handed a theoretical framework that they can then apply to any old text.

          That’s exactly what’s happening in “Computer Science.” Students want to be taught (and corporations want to hire people who have been taught) frameworks, as opposed to the actual science (and the craft (and the art)). After all, who wants to read The Art of Computer Programming when you can master a highly marketable Integrated Development Environment?

          1. Outsourced & Deplorable

            Ha, I did read The Art of Computer Programming in my youth. 30 years later I’m on phone interviews with 24yo baristas/headhunters reading “Do you know … T..CP …. I ..P?” of a script. Oh well.

      2. witters

        To find out, why – and how – truth matters, read Bernard Williams’ “Truth and Truthfulness”.

  5. Steve H.

    – so that everything a person could possibly say might somehow be wrong.

    Step 5 — Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read it as a statement which contradicts or undermines either the original reading or the ordering of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts to the same thing). This is really the tricky part and is the key to the whole exercise.

    :

    What the Frankfurt School essentially does is draw on both Marx and Freud in the 1930s to create this theory called Critical Theory. The term is ingenious because you’re tempted to ask, “What is the theory?” The theory is to criticize. The theory is that the way to bring down Western culture and the capitalist order is not to lay down an alternative. They explicitly refuse to do that.

    It’s this insane deconstruction. ‘Poppa, why can’t we go outside? Because its raining. Why? Well, waters coming out of the sky, Why? … It just keeps going like that. Why? ‘Cause fuck it, we’re alone in the universe, nobody gives a shit about us.

    1. flora

      re: Step 5.

      “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him. ”
      -Cardinal Richelieu

      An old idea repackaged by the new postmodernists.

      1. Steve H.

        Ah, thank you, Richelieu is the fine red to the prepackaged boxed wines of the now. Such great villains the past provided. “Crassus would visit affected quarters with his private fire brigade, refusing to put out the flames unless the owners of burning tenements sold for painfully low prices on the spot.” A sequel directly lifted to Five Points in the Tammany era.

        twitted a link to this: “There have not just been Iago’s on the Right, however. Post-modernism helped undermine the idea of objective truth.” Tho sadly, unlike yourself, the article manages to not contain a single great quote. Meta in a way, with no text to interpret.

        Leads to the theme explored in ‘Hypernormalization.’ If there is no objective truth, then the 21st century method of controlling the dangerous reflective capacity of the human brain is by presenting a multiplicity of subjective truths, so that everything a person could possibly say might somehow be RIGHT. An explicit manipulation of the Paradox of Choice.

        1. flora

          Thanks. I’ve been thinking about the “no objective truth” idea and wonder if that’s the US Left’s self-defense. A self-defense brought on by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC – in existence from 1948 until 1975? – aka Army /MacCarthy hearings). Liberal/leftists were purged from govt, academia, the arts, and k-12 schools, and private businesses. They weren’t simply fired. Their careers and lives were destroyed. The people around them were questioned. HUAC’s effect is still evident in Hillary’s suggesting that Bernie and the Donald are Putin’s fellow travelers – UnAmerican.

          What did an academic liberal or Leftist do who wanted to keep his career and his family’s good name, and protect those immediately around him including his students, from political witch hunts? He can say he cannot find ‘truth’ because ‘there is no objective truth’. That certainly doesn’t threaten anyone. And maybe he comes to believe there is no truth. Deconstructionism is the ultimate busywork of captives. It is demoralizing. Allan Bloom was right that “The Left of today does not believe in itself or in what it does.”

          The Left may say it does not believe in objective truth. The Right never says that.

          1. fds

            you nailed it: post modernism was a cynical career vehicle for professors to write and obtain tenure. when was the last time you saw a marxist on the faculty

  6. Jamie

    We care about truth because truth is discoverable, and because so many of our institutions (including parents and teachers) lie to us. From our originally accepting attitudes as infants, it is traumatic when we discover that those institutions are neither reliable nor always working in our interest, though they claim to be. Part of growing up is the cessation of taking everything we are told as true, and working out for ourselves what the world is actually like. Postmodernism is, as hinted above, childish in this sense. It is an eyes closed, ears plugged, tantrum of wish fulfillment. A good antidote is Eco’s On Interpretation. The entire thrust of postmodernism is FUD. You can’t reject the lies if there is no “truth”.

    Philosophically, this is Idealistic claptrap. Prior to concerning oneself with “Truth” one must take a stand on Materialism versus Idealism. The entire postmodern movement is thoroughly ensconced within Idealism. It is obvious nonsense to philosophical materialists. It is worth pointing out that some dogmatic “Marxists” are not actually philosophical materialists, and some criticisms of “the left” for wish fulfillment are also cogent. But this does not permit one to draw the false equivalency Outis seems so concerned about. “The Right” is a movement of Idealists in favor of improving the material conditions of the upper class. They use Idealist means to effect material ends. They are, in other words, lying about what is important.

    To the extent that “The Left” get sucked into the Idealist frame and make counter Idealist arguments, they are also lying about what is important, and cannot be, in the end, effective counters to the Idealist program, even if they manage to rebalance material conditions slightly in the short run by winning some small political battles. On the other hand, to the extent that “The Left” advance their philosophical materialism as a direct counter to the right’s Idealism, they have a chance to both change the current distribution of wealth and gain supporters for future rational policy. One cannot be a Materialist and not be concerned with what is “true”. Idealists may seem to have that luxury, but in the end, policy based on erroneous understandings of the world will fail disastrously. Thus, concern for the truth is paramount in any undertaking with the potential to impact the material conditions of real live human beings. And yes, to fail to show such concern is immoral, if anything is.

    1. flora

      adding:
      “What [is it about] identity’s desire for recognition that seem[s] often to breed a politics of recrimination and rancor, of culturally dispersed paralysis and suffering […]? “ – Brown

      Identity politics does seems an effective way to keep progressives endlessly busy dividing against themselves, against working toward shared economic goals.

      1. Watt4Bob

        Identity politics does seems an effective way to keep progressives endlessly busy dividing against themselves, against working toward shared economic goals.

        Which is why ‘philanthropic’ organizations grant the various non-profits representing the assortment of identity silos enough money to pay their officers $200K or more per year.

        This results in granting donors enough influence to guide those non-profits into accepting/supporting political maneuvers that negatively impact their supposed constituents.

        Everyone in the USA is yearning to make $200K/yr at which point all ethical/moral questions are suddenly considered superfluous.

  7. WatchingEthosinFreefall

    “One is not educated until one has read The Republic.” It’s all in there, and if a detailed study of this work were included throughout secondary education throughout our country, we would have a much more rational, thoughtful society and political system. The highest goal is a love for beauty, a beauty that emerges from a search for truth that indeed may never be found. Our culture has lost itself by abandoning the honest search for truth, and perhaps more importantly, justice. Moral relativism is a philosophical cop-out.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > the honest search for truth

      Or the honest search for anything, presuming Google to be the societal paragon of search.

      Certainly the honest search for beauty. Try taking a look at the built environment in the background of any “grassroots” YouTube (I’m thinking of #BlackLivesMatter street scenes, and what I remember of interiors from Game of Thrones reaction shots). You will see a lot of ugly. Or look, really look at any mall, and be sure to see the overhead wires and all the tar and automobile optimizations. Lots and lots of ugly. Can’t be making people any happier, that’s for sure.

  8. Jolly Tommo

    Sorry. I’ve thought hard about making this comment.

    I’m sure these posts have something to say but I cannot get past the style of presentation which I find pandering and faintly patronising. I would prefer the author just present a clear argument and own it, or write the expository novel.

    From the author’s own comment above:

    “While some of this complexity is inherent in their projects, it often seems unnecessary, and regardless there are strongly elitist consequences.”

    Indeed.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      No offense taken.

      The approach you suggest (“just present a clear argument and own it”) would have meant overtly taking one side of the modernist vs. postmodernist conflict that the series is trying to spotlight. The side taken would be the one that is easiest to defend today, namely a posture of aggressive certainty.

      Quite a few explicit theses will appear in the series, but none of them will be presented as definitive. In each case, they are ideas that might resonate or might not, that might be interesting but might also be incomplete or short-sighted. You, as the reader, can choose for yourself whether particular theses are convincing or not, whether particular questions are worth exploring further. Maybe, in the end, you will be able to come up with counter-theses that are more compelling than the ones already in the piece.

      1. MaroonBulldog

        And in addition to that Outis, allegories are fun. And effective

        Would Christianity still exist in the world, if Jesus had just presented a clear argument, and owned it, instead of giving us the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son?

  9. cojo

    “But then, something in what Brown was saying started to sound familiar: Postmodern power is often characterized as decentered and diffuse even while it incessantly violates, transgresses, and resituates social boundaries; it […] irrigates through networks rather than consolidating in bosses and kings […]”

    I remember an interesting TED talk about this. Essentially, someone mapped out the “nodes” of power to several highly concentrated entities.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Here’s .

      I think that Glattfelder has a reasonable approach to these “entities” (he uses network topologies and unsurprisingly reveals what looks to me like a scale-free network with a very few “hub” nodes at the top of the power curve.

      However, the identity of the “highly concentrated entities” is not nearly as clear as Glattfelder’s “big data” approach would like it to be. As our own Richard Smith was shown in detail over and over again, ownership structures are highly obfuscated. So Glattfelder could be right on the formal characteristics, yet wrong (or not usefully right) on the “truth” of who (and not what) those entities are.

  10. Jim

    The philosophy of Plato, Aristotle or Cicero and Christian thought largely assumed that reality was originally and at heart peaceful and become violent because of the irruptions of fate or sin.

    Liberalism, as it has developed historically, has reversed this type of thinking. Since the 17th century Hobbes and others assumed a war of all against all as the natural condition of humanity because any agreement concerning a transcendent good started to be associated with conflict and warfare.

    In the name of reducing conflict liberalism has always thus assumed that reality was inherently antagonistic and the human naturally egotistic and prone to the sway of passion.

    Post-Modern liberalism has advocated deconstruction whereby one reveals the arbitrariness of any construct, however its validity depends on the assumption that every artificial construct is merely arbitrary. But, of course, liberalism itself makes this assumption about human constructs; they are seen as the result of naked force or as a type of covert imposition disguised as a contractual agreement, since it is impossible to have a consensus about objective values for either the community or individual.

    Consequently liberalism imagines that it can deconstruct the non-liberal–the traditional or religious– but in reality it appears that what liberalism ultimately ends up deconstructing are the works of liberalism itself.

    Using this logic it can be maintained that liberalism ends up producing the war of all against all that may have been its own mistaken presupposition–and ends up swallowing itself.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      The one who came to bear witness to the truth professed this: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

      Freethinkers rejected the claim of authority and the cost of discipleship, shortening the words of promise to omit their condition: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” was all they could and would profess.

      Then they discovered the paradox of knowledge, coming to know that knowledge itself can never be certain but is seldom to be trusted. And so they endured the ensuing crisis of doubt, the doubt that knowledge is truly possible.

      For this reason, they redacted their profession of faith even more, “The truth will make you free,” was all they then said, or could say. Empty words now, that express a mere unfounded opinion. They might as well have said, “The truth will make you free–we don’t know how, we can’t know why.”

      And then the Twentieth Century discovered that it had no answer to the Roman governor’s question: “What is truth?” And the bearers of the tradition of freedom, the liberal tradition, did not know what could make them free.

      So now we mount the desperate debate to decide if truth is a viable idea. And our feelings of cognitive dissonance inform as that we already know where the debate will lead: our emotional demands will not be met.

      Welcome to the rediscovery of the bondage of the will, in a world where the only truth to know is: “You can never be free.”

  11. David

    Post-modernism basically tells it like it is: absent a faith in religion which tells you what to believe, you have to accept that, no matter how strongly you may cling to ideas and values, they can never be logically proved to be true. But that makes lots of people uncomfortable, so they look for surrogates rather than going through the pain and effort of thinking for themselves. Historically, the Right has appealed to “tradition”, “common sense”, “markets” etc as a way of controlling the discourse. The Left (if that’s the word) has substituted “human rights”, “oppression” “anti-X, Y or Z” (and a good helping of undigested Foucault in translation) to create its own ideology of identity and repression. But because that ideology has no logical basis, and because, whatever we may believe, we cannot show that it is verifiably true, the only recourse for its defenders is to try to shout down doubters, and accuse them of being Nazis, fascists etc.

      1. David

        Category error. I think the sun will rise tomorrow. I think the sun and the rest of Universe was created by God. Two different things.

        1. fds

          One can be proven, one can’t, boomer. Indulge in your fantasies, predicated on the wealth and better society you were born into.

    1. fds

      You’re right, fascism and socialism is equivalent. Liberalism and Sharia Law is equivalent. Both societies produced by them is equivalent.

      Are you 14 years-old?

  12. Jesper

    There is nothing worse for an intellectual liberal than to be seen as stupid (& in our ‘meritocratic’ world only stupid people are poor, right?) and to avoid that the intellectual liberal will do a couple of things:
    1. Never give an easy answer – if an answer is complicated then it is always possible to claim that within some narrow parameters the answer was/is correct. In general such answers are useless but based on what the intellectual liberal is paid then another value might be assumed.
    2. Never question mainstream academia – mainstream may or may not be correct but challenging mainstream will open up for accusations of stupidity and/or craziness.
    3. Never forget who has the money at the present time – in the long term something might be revealed to be false but we’re living (and possibly starving) in the short-term so do what it takes to keep food on the table now.
    4. Never forget that insiders are looked after – only outsiders are ever thrown under the bus. Every time I read a story about what happens to a brave whistleblowers, I wonder if this heroic story is intended more as a warning not to do what is right than as an example for the rest to follow…

  13. Plenue

    “If the most brilliant liberals of the 1990s had been convinced that all attempts to establish absolute truth were fundamentally flawed and problematic”

    Not just that, it’s an ultimately unachievable goal. Even if you ever did arrive at some core truth, how would you even be able to tell? But it’s still a goal worth pursuing, because in the process you can make things better in a practical sense, even if the ultimate goal is forever elusive. On the flip-side, what the freak have postmodernists ever achieved, other than pretentious drivel and crimes against comprehensible language?

    1. flora

      What Archimedes did not say:

      ‘Give me a muddy mire to stand in, a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall not move anything.’
      -not Archimedes

      1. flora

        adding: Maybe the point of pretentious drivel is precisely to keep people disoriented, keep people from finding solid ground to stand on.

    2. fds

      It’s called consensus based on observation and honest debate. We’re calling upon social science here.

  14. Lambert Strether

    There is also James Noble and Robert Biddle’s deadpan and screamingly funny . From the abstract:

    These notes have the status of letters written to ourselves: we wrote them down because, without doing so, we found ourselves making up new arguments over and over again. When reading what we had written, we were always too satisfied. For one thing, we felt they suffered from a marked silence as to what postmoderism actually is. Yet, we will not try to define postmodernism, first because a complete description of postmodernism in general would be too large for the paper, but secondly (and more importantly) because an understanding of postmodern programming is precisely what we are working towards. Very few programmers tend to see their (sometimes rather general) difficulties as the core of the subject and as a result there is a widely held consensus as to what programming is really about. If these notes prove to be a source of recognition or to give you the appreciation that we have simply written down what you already know about the programmer’s trade, some of our goals will have been reached.

    And from the text:

    In the section “No Metaphor” we will have stressed that postmodernism has a past, and that this past is reflected in both the structure of the discipline and the practice of programming. In particular, this past exists as a large number of existing programs that the postmodern programmer can scavenge through and reuse. Instead of presenting (as a ready-made product) what we would call a scrap-heap program, we are going to describe in detail the process of creating such a program. We do this because many programs are just there: they do not have to be made, and the kind of programs we are particularly interested in are those which we feel to be comfortably outside our powers of construction and conception. The task is to instruct a computer to print a table of the first thousand prime numbers, 2 being considered the first prime number. To write this program, we first connected our computer to the Internet, downloaded some music from Napster, and then read our email. (You have to receive email to perform a workday [11]). We received 25 pieces of email of which 16 were advertisements for Internet pornography, administrivia, or invitations to invest in Nigerian currency trades. After dealing with this email, we typed “calculate prime numbers” into Google. This found several web sites regarding prime numbers, and some more pornography. After a while, we were interrupted, and so moved on to the prime number web sites. In particular, includes the “ALGOMATH” C library for calculating prime numbers; another site included an EXCEL macro which was too complex to understand.

    Noble and Biddle later went to .

    * * *

    My understanding is that enormous financial flows depend on Excel macros. One can only wonder how many of them are “too complex to understand.”

    Thoughts from our technical readers?

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Heraclitus said, you can’t code the same algorithm the same way, twice. A later Greek philosopher amplified on that; it is impossible to code the algorithm the same way, even once.

      Not only are large Excel models impossible to understand, but each time Microsoft does an update to Excel, nobody is sure if the macros survived the translation. The safest thing would to start with a blank spreadsheet opened under the newest version of Excel, and rebuild from scratch. That way you will be forced to review the basic idea behind the model, not just if the macros still make sense.

      1. UserFriendly

        +1
        And even a minor change in the excel sheets input fields can sometimes have catastrophic consequences. I had to spend a month rebuilding an excel sheet someone else made and I am no coder.

  15. H. Alexander Ivey

    Oh, oh, oh. I get it! The Left has truth on its side, while The Right has PR…

    Funny, I remember the day when neither side claimed ‘truth’ for their actions but whether should the status quo in an area be changed (The Left) or left as it is (The Right).

    -This posting is not in reply to OP’s post, but to the general run of comments below it.-

  16. Paul O'Sullivan

    I enjoyed this (the print copy) by Gellner recently.

    (i have taken a liking to reading Gellner having not come across him at all until recently)

    There are versions around but not sure how legit. It seems quite relevant to many current debates.

    That said, I worked also through both Harvey and Eagleton on the subject (I thought Harvey’s ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’ a really good read) and also through Brown’s Undoing the Demos (which I also enjoyed and builds on Foucault) but can’t say I was able to arrive at any settled position.

    I am really enjoying the series though. Especially the comments sections, thank you.

  17. Stephen Yearwood

    Postmodernists have made the mistake of supposing that ideologies are rational constructs. They are not. They are always founded on beliefs, which are always non-rational.

    As a result of that error, they have focused their critique on ‘the rational’ when the culprit has been beliefs. Beliefs beget contests of power ending (if they ever do end) with one side imposing its beliefs on all others. The close connection between beliefs and will is obvious.

    Based on the religious strife that had wracked Europe in the late Middle Ages, modernists concluded that just governance requires universality, an ethic that applies to all people, whether anyone likes it or not. They equated universality with objectivity and objectivity with secular.

    Postmodernists attacked that construct at its center: objectivity. I am convinced: objectivity is impossible for human beings.

    While objectivity is impossible, the universality necessary for justly governing governance is not. It is obtained through observation within (apparent) material existence. Whatever is sufficiently verified via such observation must be accepted as valid knowledge by all people.

    To refuse to accept such knowledge is to be irrational. People who are being irrational that way can be justly ignored.

    The bottom line on beliefs is that all beliefs are valid for the believer, but only for the believer.

  18. Claudia

    I’m pretty much blown away by Outis and his wonderfully scathing deconstruction of Liberal hypocrisy.

    While our email group has been passing this series back and forth, another essay on the Death of PostModernism by Alan Kirby also came up: and from the Kirby essay “…Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge….”

    Scanning this as I was, I mis-read it first as “exclusiveness”…and then upon reflection have wondered if much of Postmodernism is not just that: an exercise of exclusivity, using language and syntax (especially Brown) to weed out all ordinary mortals, and stun most of the rest into passive acceptance of current hoo-ha thinking. Hooray for Outis and his mighty skewer!

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