Posts Tagged ‘Postmodernism’

Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature, Pamela Bedore, PhD, presenter, Great Courses, 2019.

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This is a mixed bag. There are 24 half-hour episodes covering many of the major utopian and dystopian works of the last half millennium, and Bedore does a good job of analyzing those running through the 1970s, at which point things go off the rails.

Just before that point, she rightly and insightfully devotes an episode to Ursula LeGuin (“The Dispossessed” and “The Left Hand of Darkness”), but then heads into the thicket of postmodernism and feminist/LGBTQ fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else except YA books (“Great Works of Literature”?) over the last 40 years. (Ironically, in an earlier episode dealing with Orwell, she approvingly quotes his famous essay, “Politics and English Language,” which posits that political writing should be as clear as “a pane of glass” — and then approvingly quotes postmodernist obscurantists such as Lyotard and Foucault in later episodes.)

In the latter episodes, Bedore skews things so badly that she devotes three full episodes to Octavia Butler — a quite good writer, but hardly deserving of a plurality of the post-1970s episodes — and completely ignores the deeply reactionary and thoroughly debunked assumption underlying what’s probably Butler’s most famous work, the Xenogenesis trilogy, treating those books as a flawed utopia. In fact, Bedore seems entirely oblivious to the entirely dystopic political and social associations and implications of Butler’s underlying assumption.

That assumption is that humans are basically competitive rather than cooperative, and hence are doomed to destroy themselves and the earth. This is merely the flip side of the Social Darwinist coin, and it’s no more progressive than that rationale for sociopathic behavior. (Butler doesn’t even provide a plausible way out of this artificial problem, leaving it up to more enlightened aliens to genetically alter humans to make them cooperative. To treat the Xenogenesis trilogy as a utopia is grotesque; it’s more akin to the disgusting, discredited “Lord of the Flies.”)

At any rate, Bedore wastes a lot of time on Butler, while ignoring or giving short shrift to more important writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Iain M. Banks, and (arguably) Ken Macleod, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Charles Stross, Rudy Rucker, and Kim Stanley Robinson. She devotes only a woefully superficial half-episode to Atwood’s masterful, extremely complex Maddaddam trilogy. And she totally ignores the premier utopian novels of the last four decades, Banks’ “Culture” novels.

As well, Bedore gives very short shrift to the important eco-catastrophe works of the last several decades. She doesn’t even mention the first, and probably best, climate-change-disaster novel, George Turner’s “Drowning Towers” (1987), which is a literary masterpiece, nor Norman Spinrad’s underrated, nearly ignored master work, “He Walked Among Us” (likely his best book but for, perhaps, “The Iron Dream”) and the only such novel she deals with at any length is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” whose premise is so absurd (all life on earth extinguished except for humans) that the book should be dismissed out of hand. (Of course, McCarthy is an acclaimed “literary” author, so, at least in academic eyes, he deserves to be taken seriously — as should the postmodernist b.s. artists.)

All in all, Bedore does a good job with the pre-1980 period, but after that, not so much. Of course, the farther back you go the easier it is to make accurate critical judgments, but even so she did a poor job with the post-1970s material.

Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature isn’t terrible. But it could have been so much better.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (large pdf sample here). His latest book is the compilation Godless: 150 Years of Disbelief, published by PM Press, and when the insomnia let’s up and he’s relatively coherent, Zeke is working on the sequel to Free Radicals, an unrelated sci-fi novel, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, and an anarchist compilation for PM.

Free Radicals front cover

Here’s the latest installment in our ever-popular Internet Crap series, which mixes links to sick and absurd but amusing crap with links to useful crap. Enjoy!

  • Skeptic Magazine has a great piece on a new successful hoax of a postmodernist academic journal. The piece begins:

    The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

    “. . .We used this preposterous sentence to open a ‘paper’ consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.”

  • Walking disease vector Milo Yiannopoulos’s publicists claimed, to Publishers Weekly, that his new self-published book Dangerous sold 100,000 copies during its first week. It turns out, according to industry reporting firm Nielsen BookScan, that it was only about 18,000. (To avoid misunderstanding, please understand that when we refer to Yiannopoulos as a “walking disease vector,” we’re referring to emotional, not physical, illness.)

  • Raw Story reports that “Conservative Christian reality TV star Toby Willis gets 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to child rape.” What channel was carrying the Willis program? You guessed it! TLC.  Raw Story further reports that “Willis’ rape case is the third sex scandal that plagued TLC. In 2014, the network first canceled ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ after Mama June rekindled a romance with a convicted sex offender. In 2015, it axed ’19 Kids and Counting’ following Josh Duggar’s molestation scandal.”
  • Well, this is a first. The Saudi government is usually in the news for persecuting atheists, committing judicial mass murder, forbidding women to drive (among other worse affronts), and committing war crimes in Yemen, but it’s come up with a new, amusing, and amazing offense it can use to hammer its citizens: excessive butt kissing.
  • If you’ve been listening to right-wing misrepresentation of Black Lives Matter,  please give a close listen to Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a found of Black Lives Matter, who presents a very insightful analysis of current political conditions in the United States, and how we can improve them.
  • Finally, the headline here (almost) says it all: “Juggalo March on Washington: Insane Clown Posse fans to demand end to ‘gang’ designation.”

For now, that’s all folks.

Stanislav Andreski

“So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.”

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–Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery, quoted by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in the introduction to Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

Skeptic Michael Shermer

Skeptic Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“But isn’t the history of science . . . strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong [scientific] theories combined.”

–Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic), “At the Boundary of Knowledge,” Scientific American, September 2016

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For an amusing illustration of the pretentious vacuity of postmodernism, see physicist Alan Sokal’s hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he describes as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernists he] could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal approached a prominent — “prestigious” would be inaccurate — academic postmodernist journal, Social Text, which thought highly enough of the piece that  they published it in their Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue.

As Richard Dawkins noted in Nature:

Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.

For a bit of fun, Communications From Elsewhere has a postmodern text generator, and you can generate your own computer science postmodern masterpiece with the help of an online gibberish generator created by pranksters at MIT. Just fill in the names of the “authors,” and voilá: a correctly formatted “academic” paper that makes sense only occasionally and inadvertently.

I pulled up the generator, fed in the names of a few lesser known cult leaders and serial killers (yes, there is overlap) and came up with a paper titled:

Decoupling the Turing Machine from Consistent Hashing in Byzantine Fault Tolerance

Authored by
Fritz Haarmann, Michel Petiot, Charles Dederich, Ervil LeBaron and Luc Geret

Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for linked lists, the deployment of the Ethernet might never have occurred. In this paper, we confirm the investigation of Byzantine fault tolerance. In this position paper, we concentrate our efforts on validating that public-private key pairs and Lamport clocks can agree to surmount this grand challenge.

So, there you go. Have fun with the postmodern text generator and the computer-science gibberish generator.  (Thanks to UA astronomer Jess Johnson for alerting me to the latter wonderful resource.)

(My friend Emmett Velten was murdered five years ago. The police never found his killer. As a small way of keeping his memory alive, here’s a paragraph from his essay, “Postmortem for Postmodernism.” It provides a good taste of the man and his work. The world is a poorer place for his loss.)

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Postmodern constructionism’s proponents modestly see it as a paradigm shift away from the Great Satan of the modern-era therapies. It arose when the philosophical movement, postmodernism, oozed from humanities departments into the psychotherapy and counseling realm. Various dates are said to mark the start of the modern era of Western culture, with 1900–1920 or so receiving the most votes. The modern era in which science supposedly reigned supreme, began to falter in 1976—or so postmodernists like to think—when Jacques Derrida, the godfather of postmodernism, published his incomprehensible magnum opus, Of Grammatology. Partly due to long-term resentment against logic, science, and reality, and partly because the kindred sicknesses of political correctness and multiculturalism were just beginning to incubate in premorbid professorial body cavities, humanities departments of American and European universities and colleges contracted postmodernism. Pretentious dissertations, learned papers and books, all of them unhinged and anti-science, drew attention to postmodernism and frightened normal people both in and outside the groves of academe.

“Self-delusion and self-discipline inhibits the reflective self, the postmodern membrane, the ecclesiastical impulse forbidden by truth-seeking and sun worship, problematizing the inchoate structures of both reason and darkness, allowing knowledge, half-knowledge, and knowledgelessness to undermine and yet simultaneously overcome the self-loathing that overwhelms the Gnostic challenge facing Biblical scribes, folksingers, and hip-hop rappers alike.”

–Peter Dreier, “On the Absence of Absences” (a fake paper that was accepted at an academic conference)

(from his “Academic Drivel Report” in The American Prospect)

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Know-nothingism has become fashionable on the religious right. Many right-wing fundamentalists insist that assertions contained in an ancient mish-mash of a book are every bit as valid as carefully arrived-at, repeatedly tested scientific theories and conclusions.

In a striking bit of irony, some go even further and (unconsciously) mimic academic postmodernists, insisting that all “opinions” (including scientific conclusions) are equal. Thus willful ignorance among the least educated mirrors willful ignorance among the most educated.

Given all this, it’s good to remind ourselves of why facts matter, and why science is superior to religious faith.

Failure to take facts into account has real-world consequences. To cite a trivial example, if you believe you’re invulnerable because you believe you are, test your hypothesis by stepping in front of a truck. To cite a sadder, all-too-real example, science has established that the similarities between human beings vastly outweigh the differences, and that there’s no basis for assertions that any race is superior to any other. So, are the opinions of racists just as valid as  the scientific conclusion that the differences between racial groups are trivial?

To cite still another example of why facts matter, in the Middle Ages in Europe, with science at a standstill, many believed that disease and bad weather were caused by witchcraft. End result? Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of “witches” were brutally murdered for “causing” storms and disease.

There are innumerable other examples demonstrating why facts matter. And, yes, you can’t absolutely prove anything, but probabilities are so high in so many cases that it’s reasonable to act as if the probablity is 100%.

So, facts do matter. But why does science trump religion?

1. The scientific method is the only reliable way to arrive at the most probably correct explanation of almost anything. Scientists reach conclusions by formulating hypotheses, checking those hypotheses against observed phenomena, devising experiments to test the hypotheses, checking them for internal consistency, and checking to see if the hypotheses can generate accurate predictions. Then doing all this over and over again, with different scientists repeatedly testing the hypotheses (“theories” if they consistently pass all these tests over a prolonged period of time) through experiment, observation, and analysis.

This is a bit different than pointing to a hoary book written by iron-age slaveholders and asserting, “This is a fact! It says so here!”

2. Science is self-correcting. Religion isn’t. Science continually tests and refines hypotheses and theories to arrive at more accurate explanations. Religion doesn’t.

A good example of this is provided by scientific exploration of racial differences between humans. In the 19th century, some scientists asserted that whites were superior to other races. By the middle of the 20th century, other scientists had definitively debunked those assertions through observation, experiment, and analysis. (Yes, there are still a few racist scientists, but their assertions are knocked down almost as soon as they make them, and the vast majority of scientists now accept, in line with scientific research, that assertions of racial superiority or inferiority are baseless.)

The overt racism of the Book of Mormon slightly predates the racist assertions of some 19th-century scientists, with the Book of Mormon itself referring to caucasians as “white and exceedingly fair and delightsome” (2 Nephi 5:20-21); and as late as 1935, Mormon Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith asserted that “because of [Cain’s] wickedness he became the father of an inferior race.” (The Way to Perfection, p. 101)

Finally, in 1978, in response to widespread social condemnation (and undoubtedly a desire to increase the number of potential converts), then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball announced a new “revelation” that the church should abandon its racial restrictions on the priesthood (but not the “revealed” racist passage in 2 Nephi, nor the racist statements of previous “prophets”). That’s a bit different than the way science handled the matter, eh?

3. Science improves daily life. Religion doesn’t. One clear example of this is in the field of medicine. Scientists discovered the microbial nature of disease. That discovery led to use of antiseptics and the later development of antibiotics, which have saved the lives of untold millions.

In contrast, religion has led to no developments that improve daily life. (And please don’t start talking about the power of prayer and the peace it brings–we’re speaking here of demonstrable physical improvement.)

4. Science leads. Religion lags. A good example of this is our understanding of the universe beyond the Earth. Early scientists (Copernicus, Galileo, et al.) led the way to accurate description of the physical universe.

At the same time, the church was insisting that the sun revolves around the Earth, and hauling scientists who dared to state the opposite before the Inquisition.

Another example is the scientific versus religious attitude toward women. Science has established that while there are obvious and not-so-obvious differences between men and women, their intellectual abilities are almost identical (with a few end-of-the-bell-curve differences in a few specific areas).

In contrast, religion has insisted on the inferiority and consequent subordination of women from antiquity. To cite but two of a great many Bible verses denigrating women, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) and “These [redeemed] are they which were not defiled with women.” (Revelation 14:4)

Today, some religions have acknowledged reality and accept the equality of men and women. Others have dug in their heels and still insist upon female subordination, though most are now wary of openly stating that women are inferior. And it’s safe to say that the more conservative the religion–that is, the more literally its members take their scriptures–the more likely they are to insist upon the inferiority and subjugation of women.

5. Finally, as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously remarked, science opens doors and religion closes them. Science not only leads to improvement in daily life, but to broader intellectual horizons; it encourages people to think for themselves, to question everything; it leads to one question after another.

Religion insists that all the answers are contained in ancient holy books, and that it’s wrong, dangerous to question those answers–that you have an intellect, but you shouldn’t use it.

It’s hard to conceive of anything more stultifying.