Postmodernism Poststructuralism Theory

Metanarrative Obsolescence: On “Cynical Theories,” Part 2

Did “Theory” make people skeptical of science, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay claim? Jean-François Lyotard’s account of the decline of metanarratives offers another view.

In my previous post on Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories, I argued that their central metaphor of a “virus” is a misleading one for approaching their subject: the broad cultural and political influence of “Theory.” New viruses enter a species from the outside, whereas the phenomenon they are describing arose squarely within the same political and institutional world they believe “Theory” is threatening: liberal capitalist societies, and specifically, the university. I suggested that (if we want to regard “Theory” as a disorder) a more apt metaphor would be an autoimmune condition, since the qualities Pluckrose and Lindsay regard as virtues of liberal capitalist democracies and of scientific reasoning (such as “skepticism”) are also qualities they attribute to its subversive antagonist, “Theory.” Somehow, the same habits that are supposed to defend liberalism and science have become inimical to them. How could this be?

Another way to frame this question is in terms of causality. Pluckrose and Lindsay regard “Theory” as the cause of a great many things. As I pointed out in the last post, this aspect of their argument attributes as much power to language as they argue “Theorists” do. For instance, they criticize “postmodernists” for being “overly concerned with the ways in which [language] shapes social reality through its ability to constrain and shape knowledge.” But their own claim appears to be that ideas which appeared largely in the form of books and academic papers have changed the world all by themselves. In this way, Cynical Theories seems to proceed from one of the premises it is attacking.

Meanwhile, Pluckrose and Lindsay have relatively little to say about what caused Theory to emerge. They make some plausible observations about the cultural mood that fostered its emergence:

  1. “The First and Second World Wars had shaken Europe’s confidence in the notion of progress and made people anxious about the power of technology.”
  2. “[C]onfidence in science, which was still ascendant in every meaningful regard, was interrogated for its role in enabling, producing and justifying the previously impossible horrors of the preceding century.”
  3. “Technology also began to advance rapidly, which, together with the mass production of consumer goods . . . sparked fears that society was degenerating into an artificial, hedonistic, capitalist, consumerist world of fantasy and play.”

The postwar Zeitgeist Pluckrose and Lindsay are describing here was real enough, although not necessarily all that specific to “postmodernism” or “Theory.” It could be just as easily connected to any number of 1960s-70s (and even earlier) ideological formations, including environmentalism and cultural conservatism. Beyond that, it’s notable that, as their phrasings concede, the very things that came in for heightened skepticism (science and technology) were also thriving like never before in the period when “postmodernism” arose. This returns us to the basic question of what caused advanced Western societies to generate a worldview skeptical of technoscientific progress, despite the latter’s ongoing successes. The legacy of the World Wars and other moral catastrophes such as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly has some relevance to the rise of what Pluckrose and Lindsay call “postmodernism” and/or “Theory”—but there were also more immediate and local factors.

One influential account of these factors is a text that helped popularize the use of the term “postmodern”: Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, which Pluckrose and Lindsay briefly discuss. As Oliver Traldi notes in his review of Cynical Theories, they misquote and misinterpret the following passage from Lyotard’s book: “Our hypothesis, therefore, should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the question raised.” They quote “hypothesis” as “hypotheses,” and claim the statement means: “postmodern Theory seeks not to be factually true but to be strategically useful.” But as Traldi points out, Lyotard was qualifying his own specific hypothesis here, rather than prescribing the types of hypotheses that “postmodernists” should make. This sort of slippage from the descriptive to the prescriptive, as it happens, is also one of the main themes of Cynical Theories. The book argues that postmodernism began as a description of postmodernity, but has evolved into “applied postmodernism,” a prescriptive project that aims to remake the world. However, Pluckrose and Lindsay themselves conflate descriptive and prescriptive claims in their account of Lyotard.

Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Pluckrose and Lindsay seem to view this “incredulity” as Lyotard’s own position on the matter, rather than the broad social and cultural phenomenon his book attempts to characterize. Lyotard, they claim, “critiqued science, the Enlightenment, and Marxism. Each of these projects was, for Lyotard, a prime example of a modernist or Enlightenment metanarrative.” But Lyotard characterizes the relationship between science and metanarratives somewhat differently than this. Instead of defining science itself as a metanarrative, he states: “Science has always been in conflict with narratives . . . But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game.” Therefore, science has historically “legitimate[d] itself [by] making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.”

In other words, the internal workings of science exclude narrative as a mode of legitimation, yet it has also relied historically on narrative in order to persuade the public of its value. He illustrates this point as follows: “what do scientists do when they appear on television or are interviewed in the newspapers after making a discovery? They recount an epic of knowledge that is in fact wholly unepic. They play by the rules of the narrative game; its influence remains considerable not only on the users of the media, but also on the scientist’s sentiments.” The distinction here is between “public-facing science,” which relies on narrative, and the way science operates within its own institutional realm, where narrative is largely external to its functioning.

Lyotard’s purpose in The Postmodern Condition is not to discredit the overarching “grand narratives” that science presents to the public (or any other sort of “grand narrative” or metanarrative), as Pluckrose and Lindsay claim. In fact, he argues that these are already in the process of being undermined. Pluckrose and Lindsay mistake Lyotard’s description of the processes that, he claims, have delegitimated once-dominant metanarratives for a “critique” of those same metanarratives.

Lyotard states quite clearly what he regards as the cause of the declining faith in metanarratives: “this incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences.” So in his account, the practical success of science and technology, which Pluckrose and Lindsay regard as one of the best reasons to reject postmodernists’ radical skepticism about metanarratives, is in fact the source of the decline of metanarratives. The simplest version of this argument would be that, as discussed, science excludes narrative from its internal operations as a mode of legitimacy, so it follows that, as its institutional power and influence is assured, as it is in advanced technological societies, narrative becomes broadly less important and less necessary than it would if its position was more embattled. “Incredulity towards metanarratives,” that is, is an attitude we would expect from a society in which science and technology play a central role. However, Lyotard also develops this point more specifically, as follows:

  1. In the postwar, post-industrial economy, computer systems become increasingly central to business, production, and economic management. According to Lyotard, this results in “a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the ‘knower.’ The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.” Bildung, the unfolding of the individual mind in relation to knowledge, is closely linked to narrative: it is an individual story that mirrors the larger narrative of progress. But the advancement of technoscience has allowed for the development of advanced machinery that, in turn, can be put in the service of further scientific and technological progress. As computerization permits new research paradigms to take hold (Lyotard cites genetics as a key example), knowledge production becomes semi-automated and distributed across technological networks. Hence, rather than being something stored inside human brains and shared between human subjects, scientific knowledge becomes something produced and circulated through advanced computerized systems, with individual human researchers increasingly auxiliary to those systems. This is a concrete case of what a “postmodernist” might call the decentering of the subject of knowledge: as computer systems advance, the human knower becomes less central to knowledge production. As a consequence, the importance and relevance of narrative also declines.
  2. The remarkable 20th century expansion of technical and scientific research, due in part to the positive feedback cycles enabled by computerization, allows for a proliferation of new specialized areas of research. The result is the loss of a common, unifying body of knowledge shared across fields, and a splintering of knowledge into mostly incommunicable subfields. These subfields and specialties do not speak a common language, much less share a narrative: “The narrative function is . . . being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements . . . Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable . . . There are many different language games—a heterogeneity of elements. They only give rise to institutions in patches—local determinism.” That is, the expansion of research and technical progress fragments knowledge into numerous subspecialties that operate according to what Lyotard calls, following Wittgenstein, their own “language games.” To be clear, by describing scientific research in these terms he is not making a judgment about the accuracy or reliability of its findings. Instead, he is arguing that “truth” in any grand sense is rather beside the point for those working across this dizzying array of subfields and specialties. That is to say, researchers’ concern is for the most part not to create a broad consensus as to the truth-value of a particular finding, but to generate results that are useful within a particular circumscribed sphere of activity. (A nice illustration of this idea comes from the regular “Findings” feature of Harper‘s magazine, which lists scientific discoveries whose specificity can only seem arbitrary to the average nonspecialist. There is a whole genre of science journalism that, similarly, finds humor in the random-seeming data generated by labs—a humor reliant on the gap between specialist and nonspecialist.)
  3. Lyotard describes the criterion of success that supplants any grandiose notion of “truth” in the sciences as follows: “The production of proof, which is in principle only part of an argumentation process designed to win agreement from the addressees of scientific messages, thus falls under the control of another language game, in which the goal is no longer truth, but performativity—that is, the best possible input/output equation.” To put it simply, it becomes less important to ask whether something is true in some absolute sense, and more important to ask whether it “works.” He uses the Marxist terminology of use value and exchange value to make this point. When “[k]nowledge ceases to be an end in itself,” he says, “it loses its ‘use-value.'” Under current conditions, for the most part “knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.” This “exchange value” might take many forms within existing incentive regimes: patents, grants, tenure, and so on. The point here is that the primary function of scientific knowledge production is not, as older metanarratives would have told us, to enlighten the public mind, but to generate value. This shift occurs, again, precisely because of the practical successes of scientific and technical research within the postwar capitalist order, and the consolidation of institutional reward systems for these activities.

So, how do these three factors occasion the decline of metanarratives? Metanarrative functions, as discussed previously, in order to legitimate science in the public eye. But increasingly, as knowledge becomes highly specialized and subspecialties with their own language games proliferate, overarching metanarratives that would encompass the multifarious findings of all of these subfields become simultaneously implausible and less necessary to those working within them. Implausible because the clichéd narratives of scientific progress tend to summon up quaint images of heroic individual discoverers, rather than the hierarchical, technically and socially complex laboratories and research units in which much of the work of science now takes place; and also because most of what occurs in those labs, as Lyotard says, is quite “unepic.” Unnecessary because those operating in such spaces don’t usually require a transcendent narrative to justify what they’re doing to themselves or to the public: they are oriented towards more immanent criteria of success as well as concrete material incentives.

Pluckrose and Lindsay claim that in “postmodernism,” “scientific reasoning is construed as a metanarrative—a sweeping explanation of how things work—and postmodernism is radically skeptical of all such explanations.” But as we have seen, this misconstrues the claims made by Lyotard (from whom they derive the term “metanarrative”). In fact, Lyotard agrees with Pluckrose and Lindsay that science is not, itself, a metanarrative—indeed, as we saw, he thinks that its basic modus operandi is at odds with narrative. He also agrees with them that there is a historical connection between science and the functioning of liberal democracy, writing that in the latter, “[t]he people debate among themselves about what is just or unjust in the same way that the scientific community debates about what is true or false; they accumulate civil laws just as scientists accumulate scientific laws; they perfect their rules of consensus just as the scientists produce new ‘paradigms’ to revise their rules in light of what they have learned.” His claim, however, is that the factors enumerated previously, which result from the explosion of technoscientific research in the 20th century, render the criterion of consensus less important to the functioning of the scientific community, because “consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games.” To grasp this point, consider that the last thing most researchers would want is for the value of their work to be subject to public approval—that is, for their work to be reliant on a consensus beyond that of their disciplinary colleagues. Whereas in the early modern era, science offered a means of discrediting the authority of church and monarchy with a model of consensus-based truth seeking, its alliance with democracy became more problematic alongside, to name a few, hyper-specialization and an alliance with profit-oriented research and development.

This brings us to what Pluckrose and Lindsay call the “postmodern knowledge principle”: “Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.” The implication of this principle, they assert, is that “the scientific method . . . is not seen as a better way of producing and legitimizing knowledge than any other, but as one cultural approach among many, as corrupted by biased reasoning as any other.” They appear to believe that the promulgation of the “postmodern knowledge principle” has caused a declining public trust in the accuracy of scientific truth claims. But the argument I have drawn from Lyotard suggests we might reverse this causal relationship. It implies that institutional shifts in the nature of scientific and technical work have reduced the relevance of broad public consensus to the continued success of that work. Instead, more localized, immanent, and material criteria of science’s value suffice. This helps account for the fact that a rising skepticism regarding science and technology accompanies their unprecedented practical presence in all of our everyday lives.

The strongest evidence against Pluckrose and Lindsay’s claim that the “postmodern knowledge principle” derives from the influence of thinkers like Lyotard (who, as we have seen, was trying to chart the emergence of something like this principle rather than persuade people of it) is that its most impactful instantiations owe little or nothing to “Theory.” Consider three of the most widespread cases of skepticism of scientific knowledge: climate change denialism, anti-vaccine activism, and creationism. While defenders of these positions may occasionally cite “postmodern” thinkers for strategic purposes, it would be highly implausible to assert that “Theory” played a significant role in their dissemination. A far more likely account of this relationship is that the emergence of these new forms of dissensus manifest the ongoing fracturing of metanarratives that Lyotard documents. It’s also worth noting that the advocates of these positions do not dispute the institutional power of science, as illustrated by the fact that their usual strategy is not to claim all truth is relative, but to cite their own “experts,” promote their own “research,” found their own institutes, and so on. In practical terms, they attempt to mimic the functioning of the scientific work they they are trying to dispute. This is practical, rather than theoretical, constructivism and relativism, the material correlate of which is a dispersal into competing institutions that operate according to their own “language games.”

Lyotard’s account, while it has its weaknesses, offers a reasonably useful description of some of the material and institutional conditions in which what Pluckrose and Lindsay call the “postmodern knowledge principle” becomes plausible. As should be clear from this, my own approach to the history of “Theory” differs from theirs. My claim is that, at its most interesting, “Theory” can help make sense of the social processes by which “postmodern” modes of thinking emerge and become widely embraced—sometimes, as in the cases of climate denialism, anti-vaccination activism, and creationism, in the absence of “postmodernist” influences. In the next installment of this review, I will use the same approach to address one of the “postmodern themes” discussed in Cynical Theories: what Pluckrose and Lindsay call the “power of language,” also known as the “linguistic turn.”