Monday, January 23, 2012

Pinker and PoMo

I can't see how people on the postmodernist left could possibly like Dr. Steven Pinker. PoMo thought is dismissive of the notion of universals; the idea that something called "human nature" might exist is anathema to the postmodernist. Instead, according to PoMo theory, what we have-- all we have, in fact-- is a web of social constructions.

Along comes Pinker with his 2002 The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, a book that critiques this attitude and submits that humans do indeed have a knowable, hard-wired nature. Pinker actually takes postmodernists on directly at several points throughout his book.

But as much as postmodernists hate the idea that human beings might have a discrete nature, they despise even more the notion of "totalizing metanarratives," i.e., large, overarching explanatory paradigms that purport to render major aspects of both human experience and the surrounding cosmos intelligible. Rationality (or the rationalist metanarrative), say the PoMo-ers, is an oppressive construct that has done little to promote social justice or reduce alienation. It is a tool of the powerful to be used against the powerless. From this perspective, a human endeavor like science is all about privilege: as Michel Foucault, one of the deities of PoMo thought, would argue, scientists form a hermetic "priesthood" that distinguishes itself from the rest of society by, among other ways, how scientists dress (easily identifiable lab coats) and how they talk (impenetrable, esoteric jargon*). Rationality has also led to the development of increasingly effective killing technology; the twentieth century is evidence of the ironic price we've paid for being rational.

And yet... there stands Pinker yet again, providing a new metanarrative in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: viewed from a global historical perspective (precisely the perspective that postmodernists believe is either impossible or unethical to adopt), violence everywhere in the world appears to be on the wane thanks to the evolutionary forces of ever-modernizing culture. Pinker's stance has gotten him in trouble with hawkish people on the right, who see his position as support for the utopian leftist notion of the perfectibility of human society, but how can he be any less of a problem for the PoMo crowd? Taken as a group, postmodernists, while firmly in the leftist camp, aren't evangelists for progressivism: they view the notion of progress as just another totalizing metanarrative to be jettisoned. Pinker, meanwhile, has spent years presenting evidence of the salubrious effects of human progress.

I sometimes wonder whether Pinker's entire life project has been the slow, methodical, rational deconstruction of the postmodernist project. I'm sure he'd never say that that's what motivates him, but the effect has been the same nonetheless: with every book he publishes, Pinker erodes the plausibility of PoMo thought. This is a good thing.

*I'd say this is a problem for PoMo academics themselves. Refer to my recent post on bad writing for a reminder.


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