orgtheory.net

why i hate post-modernists

In the comments on my discussion of Reed’s recent social theory book, Andrew Perrin wrote “the only thing Bhaskar and Postmodernism actually have in common is that Fabio finds them distasteful, or complicated, or something like that.” Yes, exactly. Different ideas, but they are both cryptic and often wrong. Critical realism and post-modernism were mentioned in my post because they indicate the type of literature that Reed often appeals to. Sometimes Reed appeals to types of scholarship that are clearly written and are valuable, at other times he appeals to types of literature that are obscurantist.

When I evaluate scholarship, I focus on whether it is true, insightful, and informative. By this account, post-modernism fails in because it is simply wrong and hard to read. For example, a common claim of post-modernism is that we have a “decentered self,” a claim that flies in the face of research showing the relative stability of personality over the life course.

I also distrust critical realism because it is extremely cryptic. Let’s take the following Bhaskar quote, which won Philosophy and Literature’s 1996 prize for worst academic writing:

Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.

It says a lot if you beat out continental philosophers and literary critics. This is the Usain Bolt of bad writing.

I’m willing to deal with tough texts if there’s a pay-off. For example, I have long found Bourdieu to be valuable because once you peel away the wordiness, there’s interesting and testable hypotheses about status and social behavior. But when I peel away the layers of the critical realist onion, I am only left with tears.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2012 at 12:01 am

18 Responses

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  1. Welp, my small research project showed many women talk about fashion in relation to multiple selves. They told about seeking to communicate different messages about how they wished to be perceived through the vehicle of fashion, and it went beyond “I want to be taken seriously today”. Statements were more like, “I want to be a sailor today”. Post-modernism made a good deal of sense in relation to the data.

    I would also argue that Weber’s perspectivism shares some common themes with cultural relativism. The paragraph you quote is written in an elitist style, but the author has a point that western philosophy is overly reliant on “truth.” Humanity presents such multiplicity, which science is so often trying to ignore or categorize. Post-modernists understandably rebel against this: for the underdogs and the weirdos!

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    EmilyKennedy

    August 17, 2012 at 12:33 am

  2. So you’re taking issue with Bhaskar for not presenting clear, testable hypotheses? Sounds like you just hate philosophy for not being a social science. I’m a sociologist myself, but honestly I think your hatred of postmodernism should at least be informed by evaluating philosophical texts on their own terms, which I think would often differ from the objectives of social scientific research. Otherwise it just sounds like the cool thing to say.

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    soft scientist

    August 17, 2012 at 1:18 am

  3. @Emily: There’s nothing in the description of your data that can’t be sensibly described in traditional social psychology. Simmel, Goffman, and others all discussed how people present themselves differently to different audiences. People have multiple roles and presentations of self, which is very plausible. No need for post-modern mumbo jumbo.

    @soft scientist: My beef with Bhaskar isn’t that he doesn’t do social science. He’s a philosopher so I don’t expect him to conduct empirical research. My beef is that he is unable to communicate a clear thought. I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy of science and Bhaskar (and other critical realists) have the worst noise to signal ratio. That strongly leads me to suspect that the isn’t much there. And that’s definitely a problem.

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    fabiorojas

    August 17, 2012 at 3:10 am

  4. “A lady speaking to you from the motion of her own mind is always multiple,” said Lisa Robertson (in her Introduction to The Weather). Of course, she’s a poet, so perhaps she’s not to be trusted. Anyway, when I first read Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture I thought she used the language of postmodernism in her prose ironically, as pastiche. But when I read her “Prosody of the Citizen” I had to revise this view. I think she’s asking us to take it “straight” there. And I really think it works. It employs, as John Latta notes, a great deal of “abstruse and tedium-inflected verbiage” (it’s the same essay that’s been republished in Nilling as “Untitled Essay”), but she makes every word count. It’s definitely postmodern, even explicitly so when it brings Foucault and Derrida in, if only in passing. You don’t have to like it Fabio, or even understand it, but this is a piece of a very sophisticated writing by a very able writer who is trying to say something very specific (and by no means simply “wrong”) about citizenship, subjectivity, language, etc.

    Perhaps poetry will always “fly in the face of research”, but it really does tell us something important about the contingency of “personality”. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that social science rejects the subjective experience articulated by our poets. (“The doctors are working day and night,” sings Leonard Cohen, “but they’ll never ever find a cure for love.”) Ezra Pound said that “the arts provide the data for ethics”. I certainly prefer poetry to “research showing the relative stability of personality over the life course”. I think that’s a very trivial and boring conclusion (even if “true” in its own way). I prefer to consider, with Robertson, “the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers”. No amount of social science will empty that phrase of meaning for me. Mock it all you like.

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    Thomas

    August 17, 2012 at 6:12 am

  5. As a grad student in sociology, I’m often baffled by faculty and students referring to Post-Modernism as if it represents some unified body of thought. It is not and, to my knowledge, never was a coherent body of thought. References to specific authors are always necessary. Are you speaking of Baudrillard? Deleuze? Derrida? Jameson? Barthes? In that both Foucault and Bourdieu are associated with post-structuralism (depending, of course, on who is talking) and the post-structural represents another ill-defined “group” of thinkers associated with the post-modern. So, even Pierre, beloved by all, may fall into this much maligned category. And, given this association with the post-structural, what of Lacan influenced scholars? Shall we discount Knorr-Cetina because she engages with Lacan?

    So I’m left wondering “what thinkers/researchers are you talking about, specifically?” Additionally, I’m curious why, given the rampant employment of the aforementioned thinkers in fields such as anthropology, certain European organization scholars, and even political science, does American sociology seem so incredibly resistant to actual engagement with this work? It would be one thing to be well-versed in the subject and to then put forth cogent criticism, but as it stands, I’ve only seen 1) an attack on writing style and 2) an attack on philosophy for not putting forth empirically testable hypotheses.

    I’ve written this somewhat quickly and so I feel as though I’m not quite unpacking all of my statements properly. Forgive my lack of precision.

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    M

    August 17, 2012 at 6:39 am

  6. I think Foucault is just a bad writer (to my taste at least) and it has very little to do with him being a postmodernist or not (I consider him a historian anyways). Putting authors into these boxes seems somewhat counterproductive. I mean Kant is hardly a page turner either and he is quite not pomo. On the other hand, Richard Rorty writes very clearly and well. And I consider him at least a sort of pomo.

    Also, I have read all the French writers (pomo authors mentioned by Fabio are predominantly French) through English translations and I suppose so have others.

    Critical realism is a form of mysticism in any case, if the text would be clear it would be more obvious there is nothing in it. ;)

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    henri

    August 17, 2012 at 6:52 am

  7. I have been hating on Critical Realism since before either it or hating on it was cool. But it is perhaps worth noting that what Bhaskar takes himself to be doing in that terrible, terrible paragraph is listing all of the allegedly disastrous wrong-turns in philosophy that Critical Realism supposedly overcomes. The last false path mentioned is one that leads to the “eclipse of reason” and the “superidealism of a Baudrillard”—i.e., postmodernism. So, like Fabio, Bhaskar hates postmodernism, too. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go find my favorite late-’80s/early-90s mix-tape.

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    Kieran

    August 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

  8. What many readers of orgtheory may not realize is that “Fabio” is not a traditional flesh-and-blood person but a brand character, like “Betty Crocker” or “Stephen Colbert,” and that many of the blog posts appearing under Fabio’s name are cunningly ironic trolls intended to illustrate certain theoretical points by saying the precise opposite. It’s straight out of the Baudrillard playbook, much like the most recent Bush administration. Well played, sir.

    Like

    jerrydavisumich

    August 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm

  9. @jerrydavisumich: Twas The Australian that programmed him!

    Like

    HAL

    August 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm

  10. Hang up your keyboards, folks. Jerry Davis wins the thread.

    Like

    Mark H.

    August 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  11. It’s ironic that after rejecting post-modernism (what’s that?), Fabio rejects critical realism on aesthetic grounds. What could be more ironic? Clearly there is a kernel of truth to Jerry Davis’s quip–except, perhaps, Fabio doesn’t even know he’s playing a character.

    If empirical data does not support theoretical claims, then there is no reason not to reject those theoretical claims. Indeed, the claims should be rejected. However, as an empirical matter, I find it doubtful post-modernism (what’s that?) equals “decentred subject” and “decentred subject” alone.

    Bhaskar is a terrible writer. Who cares? Most academics are terrible writers, too. Perhaps not as egregiously terrible as Bhaskar at his worse. But then, someone has to be the worst. All the same, I don’t see the relevance of any one’s aesthetic picadillos to a theoretical argument.

    Now, what about the actual claims that Bhaskar (and, say, Margaret Archer or David Elder-Vass), makes that are important for sociology? Say, for instance, his claim that structures are real, emergent phenomena and, thus, occupy a different “strata” than action? Surely this is an important claim that can be empirically verified. And, if it is correct, it refutes methodological individualism (structure is an epiphenomenon of action), methodological collectivism (action is an epiphenomenon of structure), and structuration (action and structure are co-constitutive). Instead, we end up with a social ontology that says structure is an emergent and real consequence of action, which is not reducible to action, which is predates and postdates action, but which is modifiable by action (but not voluntaristically).

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that critical realism is the best general theory we have in sociology at present, even if there is much to be legitimately dissatisfied with.

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    Craig McFarlane

    August 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  12. Nice: “This is the Usain Bolt of bad writing.”

    Like

    David Hoopes

    August 17, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  13. here’s an odd intuition i’ve had for years about postmodern mentalities. i don’t know how to flesh it out, much less verify it, but i’d like to raise it anyway.

    because of an interest in how people’s space-time-action orientations affect thinking, i’ve read a fair amount of postmodern writings about “the spatial turn in sociology” and related writings about “temporalities”. i feel positive toward some of the writings. but i also find a lot are quite opaque and incomprehensible, as indicated by the post above.

    now here’s my twisted intuition: this mentality, this approach, is not limited to academia and its -ologies. something similar, i detect, lurks in the world of high finance, notably among the “quants” and other innovators who promoted those computerized algorithms and unusual financial instruments that got the world in so much trouble these past ten years. i’ve seen write-ups that make their undertakings sound rational, reasonable. but other write-ups imply they were opaque and incomprehensible, even though their notions sold well. in a sense, these cutting-edge financialists created objects and spaces and manipulated time senses, all the while talking about globalization and relative this-‘n-that, in ways that resemble the postmodernism of the academics.

    anyone care to encourage or discourage pursuing such a comparison?

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    david ronfeldt

    August 19, 2012 at 12:55 am

  14. “When I evaluate scholarship, I focus on whether it is true, insightful, and informative. By this account, post-modernism fails in because it is simply wrong and hard to read.”

    Exactly who is accusing who of being a bad writer? I accuse the copyrighted quote above of being boring. Could a more banal thesis ever be imagined? And just exactly how do you define the words “true,” “insightful,” “informative,” and “wrong”? The argument you give is a C- in any intro to sociology class. Sociology blogging has possibly hit a new low. Why are economists such better bloggers? Was putting this out worth the maybe ten extra page clicks? If I’m not mistaken this post is part of a series. I think we should package all Rojas’ anti-postmodernism posts into one book and sell it for three dollars to grad students. We can call it Grad Skool for Foolz.

    Like

    Austen

    August 19, 2012 at 1:51 am

  15. If we are including Foucault as a postmodernist I would like to point out that he has contributed immensely to many areas of sociology, such as Gender.

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    Felipe

    August 19, 2012 at 9:34 am

  16. I think Kieran should take one for the team and summarize the main points of Bhaskar’s “Dialectic” for the Orgtheory readership. I personally don’t recall finding Bhaskar’s earlier works all that stylistically offensive when I read them, but when he started blabbering about 3E, 4D, and all that crap at the beginning of Dialectic I simply gave up.

    Like

    Mike

    August 19, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  17. Hate the ism not the ist.

    Like

    Philip N. Cohen

    August 20, 2012 at 12:20 am

  18. I’m late to the party here (despite apparently having spawned it) as I was in ASA-zone and didn’t check in until I got back home.

    The complaint about bad writing is about the most banal cop-out in all of academia, if for no other reason than that (as here) it is trotted out as a final kick-in-the-groin to a text the critic believes is already beaten to the ground for other reasons. “False, not insightful, not informative. There. And you’re badly written!”

    The postmodernism debates surrounding Fabio are quickly becoming the stuff of legend, and probably don’t need rehearsing. To wit: this discussion. And its offspring.

    I know virtually nothing about Bhaskar, Archer, etc., so won’t hazard a judgment there, though I am attracted to the second-order things I’ve heard about the commitment to the possibility of ontologically-real collectivities/structures (e.g., McFarlane in the comment above). I’m skeptical as to the empirical testability of that proposition in its pure form, but IMHO that makes it all the more valuable as a starting point for empirical work that considers the causal effects of truly emergent collectivities.

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    andrewperrin

    August 21, 2012 at 5:42 pm


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