On the destruction of metanarratives: the map is not the territory, but . . .

By Thought pieces

A friend of mine recently posted this article, rather boldly titled “How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained“. It was either read that or watch that man eat a $120,000 banana, and any attack on intellectuals seemed slightly less depressing than wondering how the hell a banana is worth $120,000.

The article opens with “Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist.

Obviously, one expects it to build up to a froth from there. But surprisingly, it dovetails into an interesting, history-based examination of postmodernism and its attack on systems of an empirical bent, particularly against science (based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic), and points out that this leads to a degradation of  what the Enlightenment stood for, and all the advances it made. It attempts to put sketch number of definitions of postmodernism, but the one that interested me was “an incredulity towards metanarratives,” as explained by Jean-François Lyotard, who coined the term ‘postmodern’.

Lyotard, in a nutshell, railed against  catch-all systems that attempted to explain everything, or provide a framework for everything, including religion, science and Marxism; instead of One Universal Framework/Truth/System, he advocated ditching the metanarrative for ‘mininarratives’ – smaller, and more personal truths, and favoring lived experiences over empirically testable facts. From Lyotard the article hops to Foucault, and then onto Derrida, ultimately building an attack on intersectionality and the running thread that in the search for ever-personal, ever-relative truths, we as a society have abandoned facts, turned our back on sciences, and are running headlong into the darkness.

As a Carl Sagan fan, I can’t help but recall his words from The Demon-Haunted World: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance…”

And indeed, when one sees hipsters sunning their bum and yoni, the temptation to send the Terminator back in time in search of Derrida becomes stronger.

But here I must stick in the antithesis: I function as a data scientist working in the Global South: we pore over vast amounts of data, study algorithmic developments that trouble us – particularly from the West and China – and help shape government policy so that the countries we live in don’t get screwed over. Sometimes we’re successful. Sometimes we’re not.

We work in public policy. We are, to use what amounts to an insult among intersectional scholars, positivists. We have to be: public policy is made at the scale of millions of people, and for the purposes of efficiency, and because of the limits of the human mind, we must abstract people to numbers and categories.

It’s ironic, then, that our operations often function against metanarratives. Quite often we run into rival those with far more narrative power, vested interests, and funding – that do not represent our territories at all, and there we must argue and defend against them. At the recent Internet Governance Forum, for example, I argued that the current school of thought against Big Tech – trust the governments, let them regulate the platforms – is a naive, German-led strain of thought, and absolutely terrifying to those of us who have to live under dictators and malicious government actors by the day, because it centralizes power – the state already has the legal monopoly on violence: to give it the legal monopoly on narrative and dissent would mean the death of all democratic effort in our societies.  We rail against ITU indicators of development, because sometimes they make no bloody sense. We point out that Facebook’s global content guidelines cannot function for every society, and advocate for more localized knowledge of languages and content ecosystems.

So here we are arguing against metanarratives that the Global North is pushing on the world, and favoring a mininarrative. But where do we peg the size of this mininarrative? Obviously we cannot bring it all the way down to personal truths for individuals: at that scale nothing will ever get done. We can operate at the level of provinces, nation-states, cities (because sometimes these demarcations don’t make sense).

We build maps of reality and operate on those, because to look at every infinite detail is to count grains of sand on the beach without ever understanding the shape of the bay we walk in. This is the tradeoff in reasoning: we sacrifice granularity for scope, and mininarratives for meta. Even the legendary Jane Jacobs pegged her scope to communities in the city, and not on shaping policy to account for each individual in that community.

The original article explores the development of postmodernism, arriving at a rather hilarious set of snippets:

Postmodernism has become a Lyotardian metanarrative, a Foucauldian system of discursive power, and a Derridean oppressive hierarchy.

And brings up such examples as: ‘When I try, unsuccessfully, to squeeze a tennis ball into a wine bottle, I need not try several wine bottles and several tennis balls before, using Mill’s canons of induction, I arrive inductively at the hypothesis that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles’… We are now in a position to turn the tables on [postmodernist claims of cultural relativism] and ask, ‘If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgement?”

“There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’, or even ‘militarist.’”

When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.

I feel that at some point I should stop being amused by these developments. The truth is I live in a society where postmodern has been the norm since 1948, where racism is routinely defended under the banner of personal or cultural truths (completely counter to logic and science). We live in societies, for example (and I’m going to use India here, because they’ve recently been producing some hilarious examples) where ministers point out that no local studies have proved that pollution is harmful to life (minister Prakash Javadeka), and therefore the government should stop making the people worry about living in cities piled high with garbage and clouded with smog. That, no doubt, is his truth.

I think we have to stick something in the ground here and say fuck it: it isn’t just the empiricists: even these postmodernists operate from positions of privilege that make their analyses useful only up to an extent. Derrida never had to actually live in the reality he espoused. Perhaps if he had lived in India, we may have come to Lyotard, read Foucault with some interest, and got back to work as usual the next day, snorting about how these Western intellectuals make a name for themselves on useless extremes. Derrida would have died from the pollution.

So I should, really, be in agreement with the article. But I am not. I am not a philosopher, except purely by accident – in the same way that a random assortment of ingredients sometimes forms a halfway decent stew.  The more I read and understand, the more I tend to impatience with all these intellectual extremes.

Sayer defines practical adequacy as being able to: ‘generate expectations about the world and about the results of our actions which are actually realised … The reason that the convention 1, that we cannot walk on water, is preferred to convention 2, that we can, is because the expectations arising from 1 but not 2 are realised … It is not that our knowledge of water doesn’t work, but rather that the nature of water make 1 more practically adequate than 2’.

I think, on the whole, I prefer to function in this space, with Sayer’s framing. I think it’s important that we understand that a map is not the territory, but the usefulness of a map is in its similarity to the territory that it represents, to quote  Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics.

Were we to give up intersectionality, would we also not fall into the flaw of building metanarratives without being able to understand local nuance? And where can such local nuance come from in the pursuit of general frameworks, if not for in-depth interviews, surveys, and other tools that capture mininarratives, and expose truths sometimes ignored in the design of grand frameworks.

I think a better way – or rather, a more practically adequate way – is not to attack postmodernism, like the original article I was reading, but to acknowledge it for what it can be: a useful tool to provide a critique of how we operate. There is utility to everything. The challenge is in knowing when you’ve gone too far into the deep end, and being able to get to work in the morning. 




Last modified: December 9, 2019

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