Postmodern Theory: The Chains of Illusive Truth

In any sort of theoretical discussion, be it in the realm of history, psychology, philosophy or sociology, there is always the potential for one to engage a debate by dismissing the very validity of having a debate in the first place. Agnosticism, or the assertion that “since we cannot know everything anyway, then why even bother?” rears its ugly head in order to stifle and befuddle the participants. Postmodernism, the anti-theory that represents the heights of the degeneration of bourgeois ideology itself, exists to make such an assertion.

For the postmodernist, the search for truth in society and in its construction is destined to fail, being that there is no one “truth” but many. If we are to humor this perspective even for a moment, we are compelled to ask ourselves what, then, does this mean to one’s ability to understand and change society? If theory is to be understood as a tool, as a guide to understanding and effecting social forces, how can postmodern theory possibly help us? Does it help or inhibit struggles for the advancement of society? Can any such advancement of society even be conceived or considered in the warped, bizarre and arbitrary world of postmodernity?

From the get-go, we can see how the Philistine rejection of an objective truth grounded in material reality may hinder one in their conceptualization of society, in that there can be no consensus on any level about whether such a thing even exists within the realm of postmodern theory. Any attempt to peg down a phenomena must contend with a multiplicity of questions that seek to reject any foundation of the phenomena outside of the subjective understandings and biases of the one trying to peg it down. Now, this is all well and good in the realm of mere philosophy, where long-winded intellectualist debates about the abstract is the sole pursuit, but for the student of society itself it is a distraction from actual study. To even begin to study society, the sociologist must accept the notion that there is indeed something to study. From this point, the sociologist must continue to reject the squalkings of post-modernity and its advocates, who at every point hereafter can only present obstacles and reiterate the dogma of society as “simulacrum” and ramble about the multiplicity of “truths.” Otherwise, the sociologist would be compelled to reduce his/her work to a simple evaluation of their own perspective and biases, ultimately rendering their work to be little more than diary-writing. To do otherwise would be to pursue a truth that is un-attainable, to attempt to write a meta-narrative that is un-writable. To surrender any ground to postmodernism’s overall rejection that theory can accomplish anything in the way of understanding is to render sociological work, in the theoretical and practical sense, frivolous. It is for this reason that postmodern theory is not useful (and is, infact, quite counter-productive) for social understanding in the sociological sense.

Outside of the full-blown theoretical assault postmodernism wages against sociological understanding, the implications of the theoretical assertion that there are multiple truths serves to fetishize the perceptions of individuals over any understanding that can be arrived at collectively. The result is that postmodernists, who may not even be able to form a consensus on what their theory means, are in a sense incapable of collaboration insofar as their “truths” are brought into conflict. If “truth” is merely what one desires it to be, and not something that exists outside of the individual’s biases and perceptions of the world, then why would one bother heeding another person’s perspective for anything beyond mere amusement? In making truth a purely individual matter, the postmodernist succeeds in creating a chasm between individuals by asserting that each individual (with all of their equally valid truths) in essence, lives in their own reality defined by their own truths and lacks overarching truths that connect them to other human beings. The objective reality that we are all members of society, that we (in some way) are made to rely on one another for through a complex network of relationships that characterizes our social being, rejected for an idealist perception that each person is the author of their own reality through how they perceive that reality.

A consequence is that there seems to be little drive for collaborative work for mutually acceptable understandings of the world, leading to little drive for action on those mutually accepted understandings for the purpose of social change. Any understandings that combine shared experiences and observations cannot be said to be any better than those one dreams up on their own, so why bother working together towards that end? What is the point in building solidarity in understanding and action if the same effect, the same hollow “truths” that are no better or worse than the “truths” one arrives at after dropping acid, are the sole outcome? The answer is that there is no point. Collaborative action, which is essential for the very functioning of society and any real effort to arrive at truth, is no more productive than picking ones nose. The implications of this for postmodern theory as a tool for understandings beyond the individual, for the collaboration in understanding and action that is essential for society to exist at all and to progress, are not positive.

As if these worries weren’t enough to render postmodern theory in-actionable in a sociological sense,  postmodernism proposes many problems but no solutions. It argues against notions of centralized power, arguing that bases of power are more diverse and that power itself is imprinted on people in the form of “disciplinary power” (in the case of Michel Foucault) but doesn’t address what can be done about it, if indeed something should be done about it. Other theories make statements about the problems that emerge in society and offer some sense of how one may arrive at a solution. For Marxism, the cause of many societal ills is the exploitation inherent in capitalism and the solution is proletarian revolution. For the Weberian, the problem is with the excesses of legal rational authority and a potential (but temporary) solution is charismatic authority. What of the postmodernist following Foucault? Well, if power is so diluted and decentralized, the postmodernist certainly would have no means of challenging this power through revolutionary activity as a Marxist would, nor would they have the option of hitching their hopes upon a charismatic authority to “shake up” this power establishment. Postmodern criticisms are simply that: criticisms. They offer no guide to action, no recipe for how to resist injustice as it manifests itself in the social world. They even lack any means of articulating whether something can even be considered an injustice. Their aim is to have no aim, and this results in postmodern theory serving to inhibit and discourage action in an attempt to address societal ills. Without a meta-narrative, without a “truth” beyond one’s personal biases and perceptions, there can be no guide to action outside of what might amount to self-improvement. Power is decentralized and imprinted on ones body — what do I do if my own personal “truth” objects to being subjected to this power? Well, other than merely realize that it is happening and make efforts to deviate from discipline as my own personal “truth” sees fit, not much.

Categories: Dialectics, Science, Theory

Tell us Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: