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Review: Reality Isn't What It Used to Be


Executive summary: This book is a popularized introduction to postmodernist thought. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and I came away from it with more respect for, and agreement with, postmodernist ideas than I had before. I recommend it for anyone with an interest in postmodernism who is not ready to read the original works of Feyerabend, Foucault, Derrida, et al, which are said to be pretty heavy going.

Walter Truett Anderson is to postmodernism what Carl Sagan was to astronomy, a popularizer of a subject often thought difficult and arcane even for an educated person, if they are not conversant with the field.

I bought this book because I thought I did not like postmodernist thought, or believe in its tenets, and even considered it dangerous. But it's silly to hate something without knowing much about it; 'know thy eneny' is always a wise idea. Who could look sillier than William Jennings Bryan, who argued strenuously against the ideas of Darwin and evolution by natural selection at the Scopes trial, without ever having read The Origin of Species?

Postmodernism, as I understand it, is an approach to epistemology, the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowlege itself: what do we know, and how do we know it? How do we tell truth from falsehood? Is there in fact any 'real' difference between truth and falsehood outside of our perceptions, and what does 'real' mean, anyway?

Postmodernists, with varying degrees of absoluteness and stridency, say that our perception of reality is 'socially constructed'. What we perceive as real, and perhaps what actually is real, is determined not by some underlying Platonic ideal form or natural law, but by our perceptions. Our perceptions are in turn molded by society, and those who control society, including religion, government, business, and age-old societal tradition.. Postmodernism sees traditional ideas of religion, or law, government, morality, and even science, as 'story' or 'narrative', little dramas that have heros, villains, themes, morals, plots, a beginning and end. Like stories, our ideas do not necessarily have any root in the real world, but are made up, for our own purposes. And like stories, different people may make up different ones, which may have value and meaning to them, but not necessarily to anyone else.

Anderson sees the roots of postmodernist thought in globalization, which brings different cultures and their differing stories/realities into contact, which shocks people into realizing that theirs is not the only possible vision of reality. He also sees roots in Thomas Kuhn's seminal work of the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which attempts to show that the traditional idea of science progressing logically and by small accretive steps is wrong; rather, Kuhn says, it progresses by a series of 'revolutions', which upset and overturn  established scientific paradigms, and set up new paradigms in their place. (Postmodernism would call these old stories being replaced by new stories.) Anderson relates postmoderist ideas of the the self to the work of Erving Goffman, whose 1959 work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life envisions all of our actions in the world of other people as the 'construction' of an image of a person which we use to interact with the world. This person is made up out of a style of hair and dress, a way of speech, and so on, a self-constructed character in a play, on the stage of the world. It may or may not resemble the 'real' us inside. There may or may not be any 'real' us inside, there may be only our consciousness, and this doll, so to speak, that we have constructed. [It's funny, I had read this book in college, as part of a psychology course, and had bought into its ideas, but had never consciously connected it with postmodernist ideas until reading Anderson.]

Anderson discusses a number of instances of the impact of postmodernist thought on the contemporary world; for example, how postmodernist ideas about law, embodied in the 'Critical Legal Studies Movement' have caused an uproar at America's law schools. His discussion of politics gives a number of examples of how political campaigns today are essentially theatre, a confected drama of the heroic politician fighting the enemies of the people as embodied in his opponent, with little reference to facts, history, or even policy. Anderson writes of Ronald Reagan's campaigns, and even his entire presidency as especially representative of this, but I see the recent Gore presidential campaign, with its 'us against them' theme, constructing Gore as a heroic fighter for 'real people' against vaguely defined enemies, as an equally perfect example of this kind of political theatre. Political dialog nowadays, Anderson says, consists chiefly of 'spin', a richly postmodernist concept, which implies that there is no reality beyond public opinion and how it can be manipulated. While it's easy to by cynical about living politicians, a thorough-going postmodernist would see past politicians and movements, even the revered founders of our country, in the same harsh light, men whose public images were carefully constructed by themselves, their friends and advisors, and later by historians, so as to present a moral drama of rightousness and vision, and so convince the public to buy into their political schemes.

Postmodernism is a powerful and intoxicating idea. It is a lens, or an instrument, that gives us a new, and rather disturbing and disorienting vision of the human world. Those of you who have seen Shoujo Kakumei Utena to the end, will recognize it as an explicitly postmodernist work, as Ikuhara acknowledged in his recent Animerica interview. One of its themes is, in my view, the struggle of the pre-modern hero, in the person of Tenjou Utena, with the postmodern world of illusion and cynical manipulation.

Postmodernism is a very powerful idea. In fact, I don't see any contemporary epistemology robust enough to stand up to it, except for science.

The reason I hated and distrusted postmodernism before reading Anderson was that some postmodernists continue well beyond the idea that politics, law, history, religion, and human society are social constructions, and assert that our understanding of reality itself is a social construction of scientists, and that science should be viewed as story, narrative and theatre. Western science has no special status, they say, all ideas about the nature of the world have equal standing, whether those of a Western scientist, who says that the world is a ball that spins around a star called the sun in an orbit defined by their masses and the gravitational constant, or an animist, who says that the world is a flat plate borne on the backs of four elephants, who stand upon an immense turtle. All scientific ideas are narrative, they say.

This idea I firmly reject. Science can indeed stand up to postmodernism, and is a more robust way to understand how the world works than postmodernism. Postmodernism is essentially nihilistic. Science is not. It makes assertions about the nature of reality, and can back up those assertions by making testable predictions. If the tests do not bear out the predictions, the theory is revised, and tested again, until the theory can make reproducible predictions about how reality will behave. Science's idea that bacteria cause strep throat, for example, predict that antibiotics will cure it, which they do. The Christian Science view that disease is due to a failure of the relationship between man and God, or the primitive's idea that disease is caused by a spell cast by a vengeful witch, cannot be disproved, but also cannot effect a cure. The scientific theory proves its greater validity by making a prediction and having it come true. The other theories of disease cannot.

In fact, science may be the best answer to vertiginous feeling that postmodernism induces. If laws, for example, are mere story and narrative, invented for the use of those who manipulate the machinery of government for their own purposes, how then do we choose which to keep and throw away? Postmodernism has no answer, but science does. Only science can test which laws work, and which don't; which produce a more peaceful and prosperous society, and which don't. Science is often uncertain, but unlike any other paradigm of knowledge, it admits its uncertainty, and can even, by the use of statistical reasoning, quantitate it. As we begin to treat more and more ideas scientifically, they emerge from the postmodern world of illusion and social construction, and become more like science itself, and we have firm ground to tread on again.

I enjoyed this book and its ideas. Postmodernism presents a unique and powerful perspective on the world, and fails only when its too-zealous adherents attempt to apply it to scientific ideas on which it can get no grip. But people often do that with new, powerful ideas. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Anderson has edited other books on this subject, notably The Truth About the Truth a reader of the works of representative post-modern authors. One reviewer quoted by Amazon called it "a remedial postmodern primer." I think I'll be reading it soon, and maybe even dip into Feyerabend and Foucault eventually. I recommend Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, an interesting popular introduction to postmodernist ideas.

Reality Isn't What It Used to Be
Paperback (March 1992)
Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0062500171

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