Postmodernism and “post-truth”

I’ve noticed a revival in a minor but persistent trope of late, namely the habit of blaming postmodernist philosophy for somehow creating the current breakdown of societal consensus (a.k.a. “post-truth politics”). Here’s an example from someone who’s definitely big enough to know better, Daniel Dennett:

Dennett: Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Interviewer: My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…

Dennett: Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.

I’m going to charitably assume that Dennett, like most of postmodernism’s tireless detractors, has simply read little or none of it. I will admit to not having devoured the entire canon myself, but in none of what I have read did I encounter the idea that it was “respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; rather, I encountered numerous early investigations into what was an already-existing phenomenon regarding the normalisation of cynicism about facts, particularly (though far from exclusively) in political discourses. Postmodernism was not dogma but diagnosis; blaming Foucault for post-truth politics is akin to blaming your death on the doctor who tells you you have cancer.

Indeed, without postmodernism posing those very questions, we’d likely have never ended up taking such a close look at cognitive bias — which is, after all, a pretty good psychological model for explaining the postmodern condition. (Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, while postmodernism was having its heyday, research psychology was largely devoted to optimising the science of making people buy shit they didn’t need; in doing so they developed countless strategies for the framing and manipulation of data, and weaponised the rhetorics of persuasion before gleefully offering them up to the highest bidder. None of which contributed to growing cynicism about facts and truth at all, of course. *rollseyes*)

The point of postmodernism is not and was never “there are no facts”, the denial of an objective reality. The point is that facts are unevenly distributed across a metamedium which distributes half-facts and falsehoods with equal facility. The point is that the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth objective reality is by definition inaccessible to the subjective experience of individuals; there is far too much to know for any one individual to know it all.

The point is that he who controls the distribution of stories controls the stories themselves.

Admittedly, there was some celebratory stuff about the smashing of metanarratives, as Dennett’s interviewer bravely brings up. And I suppose he’s kind of right, in that it helped shape a culture wherein it was respectable to question authority (though there’s a linear causality there which, as a card-carrying postmodernist, I find troubling; it seems just as likely that postmodernist thought could have been shaped by a culture of questioning authority).

But there’s nonetheless a vast difference between critiquing the concept of truth and critiquing those who declare themselves truth’s arbiter… and I suspect that Dennett’s identification with the latter role informs his anger. His rejoinder to the interviewer is a collosal tell, in a way: this is supposedly the most influential philosopher in the United States, and he’s reduced to Daddy-knows-besting a journalist with the temerity to ask an informed question about a colossal and complex topic which he’d written off with a brief and flimsy falsehood. He tells us that there is truth and there are lies, and that he can tell the difference, but he will not — perhaps cannot? — tell us how to distinguish them. Indeed, if we struggle to tell the difference, he has no patience with our weakmindedness.

So tell us again, Daniel: where exactly does this deep-seated division and demagoguery in American culture come from, hmm? To borrow from another philosopher: you can’t see the postmodern condition for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.


(I am also amused at the suggestion that postmodernism was ever fashionable or respectable outside the very rarified circles of academic sociology, having never read a positive word about it anywhere outside of the academic literature, with the possible exception of late 80s and early 90s UK music journalism — and it didn’t exactly get an easy ride inside the academic literature, either. But the funny bit is that it’s nonetheless quietly gone and become a huge part of how we understand our world, even if we don’t use the sociological lexicon. Pariser’s interminably successful “filter bubble” concept? It’s just a simplified model of the media mechanics of the postmodern condition… and you can barely spit without hitting an op-ed headline that includes it.

Facts only become truth once they’re packaged in a way we find palatable. You’d think a philosopher who hangs out in Silicon Valley would get that by now.)

Roadtrips and brickbats

It’s high time I collected up mentions of and responses to the manifold things I’ve been up to over the last year or more, having fallen rather out of the habit; the decline of G**gle Alerts meant I stopped paying attention, basically. I can’t even do vanity right!

Anyway, let’s start with fiction. I’ve not published anything since “Los Piratas…” went to MIT’s Twelve Tomorrows the year before last, but that story has had a second life on the review circuit thanks to its appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best #32. Someone by the moniker of Reißwolf rated it a three-star story, but recognised the Sterling quote near the end, so I’mma count that as a victory; meanwhile John DeNardo of SF Signal rates it a mere point-five stars out of five, saying that “the story is so steeped in boring (to me) economics as to be a story killer”. Can’t win ’em all, I guess… but hey, Professor H Bruce Franklin thinks it’s worth including on a course module reading list. And apparently Ellen Datlow listed “A Boardinghouse Heart” in the recommendations list for Best Horror of the Year #7, so I’m winning on aggregate.

Now on to things from this summer’s Utopian Infrastructures tour. FutureEverything’s City Infrastructures Lab went pretty well: here’s parts one and two of a piece I wrote for them as a follow-up, here’s an event report from Spaghetti Jams (with the wonderful title “The Metasystemic Roadtrip”), and here’s a video summing up the day (complete with an appearance Yours Truly and his overactive eyebrows).

Then there was Tomorrow Today at the ICA, a write-up of which can be found at Disegno; one Liam Healy took notes, but I clearly didn’t interest him very much. Selah!

A little more recently, Leila Johnston invited me to be involved in her How To Live Forever project, which takes a sort of experiential design-fiction-esque look at transhumanist immortality tropes. My contribution mostly involved being interviewed for this video, which was screened during the exhibit/performance/show/experience:

(More recently still, I was invited to debate the ethics of transhumanism at an event in London; on discovering said event was actually the UK Transhumanist Party’s AGM, I declined as politely as possible. There is, it turns out, a limit to my stupidity.)

What else? Oh, yeah, academia — I’ve an essay in press at the Journal of Futures Studies on the role of utopian thinking in science fiction, urban planning and futurism, but I’m not sure what the street date is on that one yet. However, the paper I co-wrote with Shirin Elahi off the back off Oxford Futures Forum 2014 just went live at Futures… and it’s open-access, thanks to the EPSRC coughing up Elsevier’s blood-price, so anyone (in theory) can read it. If you do, please let me know what you think.

Cool your head

Another day, another minor mention of immortalism in the mainstream media; this one’s rare in that it mentions the really important element of the business model of Alcor and other such cryogenics “service providers”:

The majority of patients choose to take out life insurance policies naming Alcor or the Cryonics Institute as their beneficiary.

Read that again. Let the implications sink in. Alcor’s business model involves encouraging people to bequeath a significant chunk of their estate against an ill-defined promise with little or no scientific foundations, to possibly be delivered upon at an indeterminate date in the future.

If it were only wealthy SilVal vencaps and other powerbros who were foolish enough to quaff this particular flavour of snake-oil, I’d have few tears to shed; any successful con-artist knows that the greedy and vain are the easiest targets to take. But the desperate are also easy targets, and quackery is always drawn to the scent of sickrooms; it takes a very special sort of grasping scumbag to bottle your hopes and sell them back to you.

I try to speak to Max More, but no interview is forthcoming despite several emails and calls.

The mightily monikered More is wise enough to not submit to interviews which are likely to not picture Alcor in its best light — and what astute businessman would do otherwise? But we need not be left guessing as to the flavours of philosophy that most made their mark on More during his stint reading PPE at Oxford, as his website burgeons with enlightening screeds that offer an insight into the man behind the elaborate self-made myth. I recommend starting with the soi-disant Proactionary Principle, which is also a cornerstone of transhumanist doctrine. Here’s a wee taster:

Whereas the precautionary principle is often used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition.

The core project of capital-T Transhumanism is only ostensibly about life extension and immortality; its true purpose is as a glossy conceptual package of future-glossed vanity-bait designed to encourage wealthy spoiled assholes to argue for massive programs of further economic and industrial deregulation. And while I’m not greatly fussed about the fates of fools who’d fall for this, the ultimate suit of emperor’s new clothes, I retain the same healthy respect for its tailor that I reserve for another species equipped with a forked tongue.  To paraphrase another libertarian fantasist:

People will believe anything you tell them, provided they want it to be true, or fear that it already is.

To observe that this is true is pessimism; to monetise it is cynicism, pure and simple.

Neither good nor bad, and never neutral

The network is neither good, nor bad, and never neutral; instead, the repetition of national politics in virtual space reminds us that our digital lives take place in the context of history and society, subject to the same powers and pressures as our physical lives. The network can be occupied, controlled, forbidden and attacked in just the same way as any other territory. But unlike other territories, its nature is to reveal its workings to the curious enquirer, to state its nature, and make itself amenable to investigation and change. What was not visible is written down, if we understand how to read it. By following the network, it’s possible to illuminate other narratives of history and politics, ones which have not been seen and told so clearly before, and may point the way to other futures.

– James Bridle, Citizen Ex

Our lives are linked to land and water

Last weekend I was a guest at Brown University, Providence, appearing as a panelist at Jo Guldi’s Land & Water conference, a conclave of academics and activists with a mutual interest in the historical forces mediating our access to the environment and its resources. There should be more material to come at the link above, including session videos (which may well allow you to see what happens when yours truly decides to ditch his prepared remarks about five minutes before speaking, and freewheels off on a different angle entirely).

In the meantime, here are some links relating to things that came up along the way (or during the same period, at least), because linking stuff was what weblogs used to be all about, you know, and it was all fields round here when I started out, far as the eye could see, and if you tell young people that, well, they won’t believe you… [wanders off into distance, muttering to self]

  • Xenofeminism Manifesto (interesting, if a little reliant for my tastes on an overly flexible and/or hollow “nature” as absolute; not sure how much it adds to Haraway’s cyborg feminism, but then as a White Anglo Dude, I’m almost certainly not qualified to determine that definitively)
  • Research into medieval civic sanitation (by one Dolly Jørgensen; basic takeaway seems to be “medieval cities not as filthy as we’d like to think”, but there’s a lot to look at; Dr Jørgensen appears to be a science fiction enthusiast, also)
  • Acequia (vernacular community-management strategies for agricultural irrigation, supposedly descended from Spanish traditions and propagated from there to central and South America, where some aspects of the system still persist in a limited fashion in limited locations)
  • the Granger Laws (“… a series of laws passed in several midwestern states of the United States [… t]he main goal of the Grange was to regulate rising fare prices of railroad and grain elevator companies after the American Civil War”)

I’m toying with reviving my old link-dump practice, partly as a back-to-blogging-regular hack, partly as a way of keeping track of these damn things on a platform where I retain control. We’ll see how that works out… right now, deadlines are something of a priority, but I do love to procrastinate…

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …