An interesting recent article on the supposedly deleterious mental health effects of being a post-modern literary theorist got me thinking a bit. Specifically, it got me thinking about how best to express my own concerns over taking a firmly post-modern viewpoint—by which I mean, adopting one of a constellation of theoretical approaches arranged around the critical decomposition of narratives and ideologies.
I can see taking issue with the delivery, but the essay’s thesis is pretty clear and worth engaging with: namely, that the exhaustive and comprehensive decomposition of every expressive and normative narrative as resulting either from structural power imbalances or psychosexual impulses deprives one of any justificatory resources for asserting the validity of one’s own personal narrative of the self. The contradiction between needing a valid and coherent self (what has been referred to as ontological security by, among others, the psychoanalyst Laing and the sociologist Giddens) and the professional/vocational commitment to undermining narratives-in-general produces anxiety and ethical ennui. It forces one to choose between hypocrisy and nihilism. And most people can’t abide either.
This is a broader problem with the post-modern turn: despite being in some respects hyper-liberal, it also deprives one of the semantic resources for building a positive normative project, meaning one can only be crypto-normative and disconnected from the ethical premises of one’s own practice (eg Foucault). That is of course the choice of hypocrisy. But actually being a consistent hypocrite (har!) takes hard work.
At the same time, we are confronted with demonstrable efficacy of post-modern approaches in supplying us with the cognitive tools for spotting, describing, and analysing the relationship between narrative and power. I think that this is one of the central duties of the scholar, at least in the social sciences and humanities, so this confronts me with a difficult choice. Never mind the psychological consequences of being a consistent post-modernist; I want to talk about how to be post-modern while still doing some kind of positive philosophical and civic duty.
The answer, I think, comes from backing off from the deconstructionist project—perhaps in the manner the linked article hints at. I don’t mean to say that post-modern approaches should be ditched, or that deconstruction is useless. But a charitable, deeper reading of the article suggests that the real problem here is methods-driven research. Yes, that’s right: the same malaise that afflicts boring positivist social science afflicts nihilistic literary critique, whereby research is driven by the desire to impressively apply method to the world, rather than to seek ‘polity relevance’. Instead, our goals should be to confront public problems and supply public resources for more ethically self-aware and motivated action. We should start with some sense of why we’re doing something, and have some sense of how our enquiry will provide solutions.
In other words, our goal should be to find ways of empowering people.
Of course, this may require some significant philosophical revision, since as it stands now I’m not sure this is possible for those who want to take post-modern premises through to their epistemic conclusions.
Maybe I’ll try tackling that monster of a problem some time.