-ism-ism

by squelchtoad

Over at Leah’s blog, they’re chatting about “postmodernism.” Rant time:

-ism-ism is a problem both in the academic humanities and in the internet (blago-blag) humanities. Tossing around abstractions can make for bad intellectual history and worse philosophical criticism. By all means critique Derrida, Foucault, or Deleuze. Even talk about how they are related, or about how American literature professors lumped them together.

If you say something like “postmodernism leads to relativism,” though, it’s not clear what you actually mean. Are you using “postmodernism” as a technical philosophical term, where postmodernism equals “the belief that X, Y, and Z” for some X, Y, and Z, in the same way that, for instance, the term “consequentialism” can mean “the belief that the moral status of an action is determined by assessing the consequences of that action in some way”? Or are you using it to describe a class of theories or ideas that have a shared history and are associated with one another in our cultural memory, but need not necessarily share any single specific quality?

Statements such as “postmodernism leads to relativism” often arrive without clarification as to which of these two kinds of abstraction the author believes “postmodernism” to be. Moreover, they often arrive without any definition of the term at all. This makes it much easier to strawman postmodernists (or any -ists). Once you’ve put, say, Derrida in an -ism-ist box (“Derrida was a ‘postmodernist’”), you’ve spared yourself the trouble of actually engaging with what, if any, actual arguments he may have made that could distinguish him from other postmodernist thinkers. You can then just engage with what you take to be “postmodernist” arguments, whether or not Derrida himself did make them or would have endorsed them.

If you are going to argue with a diffuse movement rather than with a specific philosophical claim, do the legwork to explain why the movement deserves to be considered as a cultural and intellectual historical unit.

Rant over.

Postscript 1: Yes, this was a rant about attacks on postmodernism grounded in analytic philosophy. Yes, -ism-ism is an -ism. Must say something about irony or self-undermining.

Postscript 2: No, this doesn’t mean we can’t say things like “racism is bad.”

Postscript 3: This applies equally on the other side of the political aisle. Please talk more coherently about “neoconservatism” as well.

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