Richard Rorty, postmodernism, and Trump

Posted: 21 November 2016 in Uncategorized
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Yes, the late Richard Rorty got it spot on:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . .

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace.

That’s from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally published in 1998. And Edward Helmore [ht: ja] is right to cite Rorty and to note that passages from the book have gone viral in the wake of the election.*

But that’s about all Helmore gets correct. Maybe I’m getting old. Or journalists like Helmore need to spend more time talking with actual leftists. Or probably a combination of the two.

Let me explain. First, I find it hard to believe that Rorty is “obscure” now. Maybe he is. But he certainly wasn’t in 1998, when Scott Stossel referred to him as “one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States.” Me, I’d just change that to one of the most famous previously living philosophers in the United States. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a monumental achievement—a riposte to the long post-enlightenment tradition of reducing the problem of knowledge to one of representation.

And while some on the Left (especially those in the Rethinking Marxism tradition, who have long been critical of all forms of essentialism, in both epistemology and methodology) have benefitted from reading Rorty, many other left-wing thinkers, especially those who remained wedded to realism, rejected much of what came to be called the postmodern critique of representation.

As for Rorty himself, he wasn’t a leftist. He did write about the Left (both Old and New, modern and postmodern) but he was by his own admission a Cold War (anti-communist) liberal.** He believed fervently in liberal democracy and argued for strengthening it. His own politics harkened back to a quite different tradition, the pragmatism of John Dewey.

That doesn’t mean Rorty was wrong or that his work, both philosophical and political, doesn’t still have a great deal to offer the contemporary Left.

Me, I think Rorty should remain on our reading lists, if only because postmodernism has been blamed (by, among others, Peter Pomerantsev) for a wide range of recent disasters, from 9/11 to Donald Trump.***

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

While I hate to admit it (because I don’t share many of his views, especially those expressed in recent years, nor his general attitude of arrogant disdain), Stanley Fish does offer the appropriate response:

postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.

What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realise that in every discipline – every laboratory of description – there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.

If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view.

Without such a measure, what we have is a contest of discourses—each of which, of course, has different effects.

What that means is, if we can’t rule out Trump (or any other economic or political disaster) in the name of some kind of “reality” or capital-T truth (and I don’t think we can), we still have two formidable weapons: critical thinking and political organizing. And, while liberals continue to deny it, the Left is still the best place to find and develop those weapons.

 

*According to Jennifer Senior, Rorty’s book has now sold out and “Harvard University Press is reprinting the book for the first time since 2010.”

**See, for example, his conversation with Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett (pdf).

***Both Max de Haldevang and Victor Davis Hanson have also referred to Trump as a “postmodern candidate.”

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