Something for Richard Dawkins fans to think about:
“Postmodernism” is a term for a branch of literary theory that questions the validity and certitude of every narrative and every assumption and pretty much everything there is, including itself.
One would think — at least I would think — that this sort of skepticism (skepticism of everything) would appeal to Dawkins’ followers, at least the ones who like Dawkins primarily for his writings on atheism and skepticism, but it doesn’t.
Well, Dawkins, in his criticism of postmodernism — which postmodern theory pretty much requires that one question it — has not actually criticized the basic idea behind postmodernism. What he has done is criticize and lampoon one aspect of it, the aspect of it that questions modern science, that is to say the aspect of it that questions the way modern scientific concepts and assumptions are expressed through language.
Have I lost you? Let me attempt (yet again) to tell you what I mean:
Language itself — as in the words I am using to attempt to express what I mean here — is a product of whichever society or culture it arose from. The words I am choosing to use right now are not only the product of millennia of various cultures and societies developing and re-developing their medium of communication into modern American English, they are also a product of my own personal experiences with language and language use. There are a great many cultural artifacts metaphorically “buried” in every single word I am typing.
Postmodernism — as it applies to literary theory and criticism — is a way to “unearth” these bits of history and culture, and to examine why they are there and what assumptions were “buried” with them.
This is the basic premise of all literary theory: to examine the words we use and why we use them.
Literary theorists and critics use postmodernism and other theoretical frameworks to figuratively dissect a wide variety of texts, from novels to films to (the narcissist in me hopes) blog posts to — you guessed it: scientific writings.
That is to say, these texts — including scientific texts — are scrutinized regarding not necessarily *what* they say but *how* they say it.
To obliquely reference Marshall McLuhan, the “message” is not being criticized, but the “medium” is.
Richard Dawkins — in what he would apparently have you believe is his infinite wisdom — has gotten this very basic premise of literary theory ass-backwards:
To hear him tell it — and to hear many of his followers tell it — “postmodernists” and other literary theorists are not merely questioning the language used by science and scientists, but the concepts and theories science and scientists promote.
He’s convinced thousands and thousands of people that “postmodernism” is “anti-science,” when in reality that simply isn’t the case at all.
The ultimate irony of this is that he is essentially doing the exact same thing many creationists do when they claim that evolution — a theory no “postmodernist” actually doubts, I would wager — means that our grandparents were apes and that sort of thing.
He is — and has been for years — misrepresenting a very basic concept that he feels (quite needlessly) threatened by in order to discredit it.
Creationists do that, also, just over a different type of theory.
To conclude, if you want to say literary theory is esoteric and of less practical value than science and scientific research, well, you may have a point. I would even — despite my fondness for language and words — agree with you, from a pragmatic perspective.
If, however, you really and truly believe that postmodernism and other branches of literary theory are “anti-science,” all I can tell you is that you have been misled, much in the same way creationists have been misled by misrepresentations of evolutionary theory.
Ironic, ain’t it?
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