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Hard Postmodernism
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
April 5, 2012

Originally published May 31, 2004

I coined the term "Hard Postmodernism" as a shorthand reference to a set of theories of cultural determinism. I define "Soft Postmodernism" as a set of liberal multicultural myths derived from the pseudo-scientific writings of prestigious cultural anthropologists and sociologists.

First, we shall briefly consider how rational determinism was the necessary historical prelude to an anti-rational cultural determinism. Then we shall proceed to a brief introduction of the two kinds of hard postmodernism — structuralism and deconstruction.

Rational determinism

Beginning at the time of Spinoza (17th century), the rationalist philosophers have enjoyed creating models of deterministic systems — because such systems are understandable by the mind that creates them. The proud intellect delights in thinking that everything can be explained by cause and effect or as interlocking parts of a great machine. Models are put forward to explain how the "machine" of nature works.

It is easy to trust a model — once you find the model to be conceptually plausible and you understand the self-reinforcing concepts contained in the model. We tend to trust what we understand. Rationalists are reluctant to accept the notion that there are mysteries beyond the reach of mere reason. Their models extend the reach of what they think we can know, by creating the illusion of knowledge. Yet models of such "closed systems" are invariably proven to be wrong in the end.

Why do the scientists cheat?

Why are models of closed systems inevitably wrong? Contrary to popular belief, our scientists have a very poor grasp of causation. Causation is fiendishly difficult to prove.

For example, we do not understand how the many variables of a "systems model" interact with one another through the passage of time. The thousands of variables at work during the course of a summer storm cannot be reconstructed in a systems model for weather. Those constructing systems models in an attempt to prove the purported causes of global warming do not obtain the desired result — and then tinker with the formula in an effort to force the preordained results. You cannot prove causation with a systems model, but you can manufacture an illusion of proof with a rigged model. Einstein's famous "cosmological constant" was a plug figure — to make the chalk formulas on his blackboard work. Big-bang cosmologists are constantly changing the assumptions and the variables of their models and adding plug figures — in the endless and futile quest for a big bang model in which the math works and the observations of the stars cooperate. Why do the scientists cheat? They are desperate. Their prestige depends on finding a model that works — but they are frustrated because they cannot prove causation with the model of a closed system.

Open systems

Consider the possibility that nature, man, and human communities are not closed systems. What if they are open systems? The Creator and his creation together represent a rather obvious open system. God can intervene in the creation and suspend the natural laws at will — an event we call a miracle.

Interestingly, everything created by God seems to have the quality of an open system. Closed systems are the mark of the speculations of the cramped human intellect as it strives vainly to understand the created world. This may be why the scriptures say that the works of God are "past finding out." Many of the things God created turn out to be open systems if you follow them over time — even if they appear to be closed at first glance.

It is impossible to create a systems model of man. If the mind is a mere cog in a machine or the construct of a closed system, then the mind can only work within the interlocking definitions and logic of the system — and can never rise above the system to critique the system. Therefore, the mind trapped in a closed system is a dead program — not a living thing which knows. A mind in a closed system is like a computer program caught in a repeating loop. If this be true then reason is an illusion — and men are automatons. But it is not true, of course — because man is an open system.

Just as it is impossible to create the mind as a subset of a closed system, it is impossible to have free will in a closed system. Preprogrammed decisions and cause and effect events are things determined. Thus, they have nothing to do with "free will." Whatever that mysterious thing is we call "free will," it cannot be found in a closed system. If a free-will entity crashed into a closed system and retained its freedom from the system yet could influence the system, an open system would be created. Man is an open system precisely because he has free will — and reason.

True consciousness is impossible in a closed system. There must be an observer from outside a system in order for there to be a consciousness of the system itself. Any function designed for conscious self-observation cannot operate within a closed system because whatever was observed would be processed, conditioned, corrupted, and misconstrued by the system. That is why narcissists are blind about themselves. When they look at themselves, it is not observation, it is self-projection. The observation function must be able to detach itself from the system. John-Boy had to go to New York before he could write about Walton's Mountain with the conscious clarity of an observer. Man has self-consciousness because man is an open system. The spirit nature can detach itself and observe the mind in operation.

When a statist regime treats man as a closed system, it robs him of the freedom that is essential to him and crushes his humanity. We cannot operate fully as human beings without a measure of freedom. To the founding fathers, this was a "self-evident" truth. The American Republic has plenty of room for human freedom because it is an open system. Dictatorships have no room for freedom because they are closed systems.

If man is not a closed system, then all determinist philosophies are false — and all models of closed systems concerning man are inherently destructive. In contrast, the open system of Creator and creation makes things like reason, free-will, consciousness, and a living human community possible. Instead of starting with the mind and ending with closed systems — as the rationalists did — if you start with "In the beginning God created..." (Genesis 1:1), you have plenty of room in the cosmos for every good thing.

The double suicide of postmodernism

When man is reduced to being a denizen of a closed system, he becomes an automaton. This is where the rationalists passed the baton to the postmodernists. The postmodernists made no futile effort to find God or Reason in their closed systems as the early rationalists had done. The postmodernists were glad to leave God and reason out of it. We shall consider the motives behind this attitude in another essay.

Postmodernism is an impossible entity without the historical prelude of rational modernism and the exaltation of Reason. Postmodernism embodies a pent-up reaction against the long dominion of Reason. Since Reason is what reduced us to being a cog in a great machine, an instinctive hostility to reason has gradually accumulated. Reason is a good thing in itself and is essential to human life — but Reason becomes a destructive monster when it pretends to be a god. This may be why there was a secret undertow of panic in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. The Romantics were reacting against rationalism because they intuitively sensed its soullessness. The old left, in their militant protests against the "system," were prone to hysteria. Postmodernists who fly into a rage and call you names when you try to reason with them have inherited the panicked response to reason — which they express as knee-jerk rage. But unlike their forefathers in the old left, postmoderns consider reason itself as the enemy.

The angry goddess Nemesis (Postmodernism) has been sent to destroy Reason for its impious pretense of divinity — and is now far along in the task of deconstruction. We must save Reason from Postmodern deconstruction, and we must also save it from Modernist deification.

The novelty of hard postmodernism is that it rejects reason while paralyzing man's will with fatalism. Postmodernism involves the double suicide of man. Cultural determinism leaves God out of the closed system, so there is a spiritual suicide as well.

Two phases of hard postmodernism

The two phases of hard postmodernism are structuralism and deconstruction. Structuralism in linguistics and psychology provided working models for cultural determinism. I shall limit my comments to structuralism in linguistics because of its obvious links to deconstruction.

The linguistic "structural models" were impressive closed systems with a scientific patina. The models had a variety of practical applications. The structuralists built the foundation of cultural determinism, which the deconstructionists stood upon as they dissected Western culture.

The deconstructionists developed tools of literary criticism and metaphysical criticism to dismantle the classics of literature and philosophy. What is left behind in the vacuum is a bitter ideology that demonizes the West as a predatory culture. After destroying a venerable culture, postmodernism has left us bitter anti-Western myths, inspired by Marxism and nihilism. It is like burning down the town and leaving behind a stink bomb to go off in the ashes.

After the deconstruction, we are left to wander in the woozy world of a vague multiculturalism. As we superficially and randomly sample the wares of the multicultural smorgasbord, we realize that the town has been burned down and we are wandering in the smoke and ashes — at an imaginary festival. Instead of real men with a real culture, we have become soulless beings at a party for non-culture posturing as culture — like the Mad Hatter's un-birthday party. Tear down the towers of Reason and Hope and you are left with bitterness and madness.

Structuralism

The Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) invented Semiotics, the study of signs and sign-using behavior. He developed the idea of the "icon," and the "referent" — which is the object that the icon refers to. The "index" includes things that are associated with the referent. The "symbol" has a purely arbitrary and conventional link with the referent.

These ideas have practical uses — but they introduce a disturbing disconnection between a word and the meaning of the word. And there's the rub. You must disconnect words from their referents in objective reality before you can lock them up in a closed system. That is precisely why a closed system represents a disconnected theoretical and mythical entity — cut off, not real life. In this abstract world of words floating in empty places, a word draws its entire meaning from a system of words.

Indeed, Saussure noticed that these elements of language could be locked into a closed system — a self-contained relational structure. Each word and language fragment derives its meaning and function through its relation to the whole. Each language embodies its own unique and arbitrary closed system. Saussure's concepts have been profitably used in a variety of fields such as linguistics, communication, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, personal computers, and the internet. Postmodernism has made valid contributions to our store of knowledge.

Saussure was a genius of a high order and his innovations are important to us — but he opened a Pandora's Box of postmodernist demons. I presume that this great man was innocent of the damage he had done. If he had known what was in store, he may have felt like Einstein did when the first atom bomb was tested. "I wish I had been a watchmaker," Einstein said, as he nostalgically reflected on his college days in Zurich, a watchmaking center. Saussure, being Swiss, might also have wished he had been a watchmaker if he had known what the deconstructionists would do with his semiotics.

Opening Pandora's Box

Let me describe the nightmare that follows the opening of Pandora's Box by Saussure. If we 1) assume that language is a product of culture, and 2) agree with Saussure that language is a closed system, and 3) assume that language determines how we think, and 4) agree with Descartes that thought defines being, then we must conclude that people of one language-culture are essentially unique to themselves and essentially different from the people in another language-culture. The thought difference is culturally determined. If thought shapes human nature, then human nature is culturally determined — and people of one culture are essentially different from people in another culture. This long string of assumptions and deductions is preposterous of course.

But the preposterous becomes more plausible when you become intellectually spellbound before the logical beauty of the closed system. Then you become vulnerable to the postmodern critique of "logocentrism."

Logocentrism means "word centered." It assumes that a word has a real connection with the objective reality that the word refers to. Its critics use the semiotics of Saussure to insist that the link between a word and the object referred to by the world is purely arbitrary. The word, they claim, only has meaning in terms of the closed linguistic system. They conclude that logocentrism involves mythical thinking. I argue that, quite to the contrary, logocentrism is linked to objective reality and is therefore the language of realism, not mythology. However, cultural determinism does involve mythical thinking — precisely because it is a theoretical construct imprisoned in closed systems that are cut off from reality.

Aristotle and St. Thomas Acquinas, who built upon Aristotle, assumed that what we can know closely corresponds with what exists. This idea flourished in Christendom because Christ, the logos, is also the Creator. He created Man, a thinking, speaking being, to know Him — as logos. The idea of correspondence between thought and reality was first seriously critiqued by Descartes, a rationalist. But the fatal critique came when Kant told us that we can only know "phenomena" and that we cannot know "noumena" — what is really there beneath the surface shell of appearances. Kant taught our intellectual forebears how to think — and we have not yet recovered from his critique of pure reason or his critique of metaphysics.

Kant's critique of pure reason is not far from the postmodern critique of logocentrism. The disconnection of words and objective meanings would have sounded like madness before Kant disconnected ideas from objective reality. But to those doomed to live in the mental world of Kant and the closed system world of Spinoza, the critique of logocentrism sounds plausible and almost inevitable.

Saussure's structuralism involves a closed stem of cultural determinism — which infers that the parochial culture we grew up in makes us what we are. It determines how we think, what we want, and the kind of choices we make. It turns us into a putative product of our culture — and nothing else. It is often very difficult to engage postmoderns in rational dialogue — because if you say something they do not like, they can brush it off as a product of the culture in which you grew up. This relieves them of the obligation to consider whether your words make sense.

Deconstruction

Deconstruction can be applied to a number of fields such as the arts, architecture, psychology, sociology, political science, and philosophy. However, I shall limit my review to a brief sketch of deconstruction in literary criticism. Deconstruction was never really as popular in academia as some have thought. Due to the withering criticism of deconstruction coming from various quarters, it is showing signs of slipping from favor among the academic and literary elites.

Deconstruction has never been the threat it has been cracked up to be. Literary deconstruction is a highly technical specialty — and an acquired taste — even for the intelligentsia. It cannot be popularized. It can never be the campus fad or the rave of the Parisian sidewalk cafes that Existentialism one was. There will never be poetry, novels, plays, and movies inspired by deconstruction as there was by Existentialism. Deconstruction can never be nearly as dangerous as the myths of soft postmodernism. Why then, do I take time to review deconstruction?

Some of the assumptions of deconstruction have leaked out of the witch's cauldron where it was brewed and have poisoned the campus. People who have never heard of deconstruction have become carriers of the deconstruction germ. I once debated a tenured philosophy professor who is postmodern in his assumptions but who did not understand deconstruction. His rantings were poisoned with the malice and delusions of deconstruction.

It can be argued that the detached indifference, ironic wit, and playful superficiality induced by deconstruction can be the basis for characters in novels and dramas. Hence, deconstruction can stimulate culture — like prototypical existential characters used to do. However, the French farces of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century had comedic characters just like our prototypical postmodern narcissist. You don't need deconstruction to produce a self-absorbed popinjay.

Jacques Derrida, popinjay-in-chief

Jacques Derrida is the popinjay-in-chief of the deconstruction movement. I say this because he is more widely known for his colorful narcissism, and his playful ironic wit, than he is for his philosophy. His complete indifference to any sense of meaning and purpose and his whimsical playfulness seem to drain the bitterness out of his irony. He could play the part of a carefree old simpleton in a French farce — the eccentric and cheerful old geezer who occasionally utters an inscrutable epigram — leaving you to wonder whether he is a fool or a sage. However, Derrida is more than a popinjay, a Peck's bad boy, or the spoiled poster child of deconstruction. He was one of the pioneers of the technical means of deconstructing literary classics.

Literary deconstruction

Linguistic structuralism and the critique of logocentrism have profound implications for literature. If language is contained in a closed system of culture, it can only speak to one culture at one place and time in history. A classic, it is thought, cannot overleap the centuries and the continents with an inspiration that will be relevant to another culture. The meaning will be misconstrued by the other culture that uses language in a different manner.

Interestingly, Saussure foresaw the problem of time. His synchronic linguistics deals with a language at one moment in time. His diachronic linguistics deals with a language as it changes over time. But it is not just a problem of evolution of language over time. For the cultural determinist, it is the problem of a different culture. The deconstructionists say we cannot properly understand Shakespeare because his culture was different from our culture.

How then do we understand what Shakespeare meant when he had Macbeth say, "Life is but a walking shadow; a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage...?" According to Derrida, we cannot know by the straightforward meaning of the sentence or by the context of the drama. We must decode the sentence according to the culture-driven interlocking system of words and meanings which existed in Shakespeare's day. The culture of the day was dominated by the Aristocracy. Therefore, the language system of that culture was filled with the agendas of the ruling class. Certain words were "privileged" according to prevailing cultural values. The myths of aristocratic culture are tucked away in certain enigmatic phrases. The techniques of deconstruction are designed to tease out the hidden meanings that are concealed under the overt language.

Derrida believes that the languages of Europe carry subliminal messages from the ruling classes. These messages are about domination and exploitation. They exalt the ruling class and demean the underclass. Thus the languages are oppressive. Deconstruction liberates us from this oppression — or so we are told.

The destructive influence of deconstruction

The literary classics are beneficial to civilization precisely because they rise above the culture, politics, and economics of the place and time when they were written. They send messages to future generations because they tell things about human nature that are universal and timeless. All men share in the things that are human regardless of their nationality, culture, or economic status. This why the classics are immortal. They help us rise above our parochial narrowness and appreciate the solidarity we have with our fellow men because we share a common nature. We find out who we are, we learn that we are not alone, and we learn that we are something more than how our culture defines us. We are inspired to draw from the treasures of our cultural heritage, to renew our present moribund cultural tradition, and brush away the cultural incrustations that impinge upon the dignity of man.

Deconstruction nullifies the classics and diminishes them from a thing of universal splendor to an antiquarian study of how the nobles used to cleverly manipulate language to oppress and deceive the serfs. Deconstruction hinders us from speaking plainly about things that are true. A deconstructionist cannot hear a direct affirmative statement without accusing the speaker of having a hidden agenda. Speech as a means of authentic communication withers in the desert land of deconstruction. The tellers of truth must go underground in order to communicate free of deconstructionist head games, manipulation, and intimidation.

Deconstruction falsely accuses the classics of politicizing literature. Quite to the contrary, it is deconstruction which politicizes literature and speech. Every phrase you utter or paragraph you write can be used as the springboard to an ideological rant.

The classics teach us to love and cherish our rich literary culture. Deconstruction teaches us to despise the "predatory and exploitive" culture of the West. Every syllable uttered by our literary forebears was oppressive and exploitive, we are given to believe.

The malicious deconstruction of literature is reserved for Western literature. All the malice is exclusively directed at the works of "dead white European males." The literature of non-European cultures is excepted from criticism. No matter how mediocre a literary work is, if the author comes from a non-European culture, the work will be hailed as a valid expression of an authentic culture. If a European literary critic criticizes a novel written by an Indian in Brazil, the deconstructionist will claim that European critic cannot understand the novel because it is the work of another culture — or that the critic's attitude is poisoned by "racism." This is absurd, of course.

But it is why a huge quantity of bad literature and poor scholarship is lionized by our universities. A literary work of another culture or of a favored subculture, namely blacks, gays, feminists, Hispanics, and the handicapped, is exempted from criticism. Scholarship in some fields has suffered terribly as a result. Literary criticism, a formidable art in the modern era, has crashed at rock bottom in the postmodernism environment. Men of refined aesthetic judgment are rapidly disappearing from the scene.

Tribalizing and demonizing

Those who criticize the work of a privileged subculture are demonized. The tribalizing of academia facilitates the demonizing. Anyone who vexes the tribe must be a demon.

A black friend of mine once said, "Only a black can understand black history." This postmodern nonsense is the routine dogma taught at our great universities. Unfortunately, the prevalence of such ideas hinders our understanding of what history is. Is history the accumulated feelings of subcultures transmitted by members of the subculture and understandable only by that subculture? Or are the objective events of history and the manifest meanings of those events accessible to all intelligent and literate people? The former involves the transmission of tribal myth. The latter is history. Postmodernism is a default from civilization and a return to the primitivism of the tribal myth.

From whence comes the gigantic hostility to Western culture by Western intellectuals? The great disillusionment was a long time in coming and had a variety of causes.

Of foremost importance in understanding the misanthropy of deconstruction is that it is a close kin of Marxism. Both are forms of determinism and both demonize the West. After the Soviet regime collapsed and disillusionment swept over the campuses, many America-hating Marxists became America-hating postmoderns. The change can be made in one easy step. All you have to do is to replace economic determinism with cultural determinism — and you can still hate mostly all the same people.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31