Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Postmodernism" by Christopher Butler (2002)

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Christopher Butler, who retired as Professor of English at Oxford University in 2008, is not a postmodernist. So this book is a classical liberal take on the whole sorry phenomenon. One thing he does not attempt is a sociological analysis as to how a doctrine so firmly anchored in total cultural relativism, philosophical idealism and textual reductionism became so culturally hegemonic (see here).

One thing that does become clear, however, is the extent to which postmodernism continues to provide the (rather shallow) foundations of the whole SJW movement and cultural-left politics in general.

Postmodernism's general silliness is most transparent when applied to natural sciences and mathematics, areas where commitment to the idea of a shared, depersonalised and asocial substrate is a precondition for practice.

From page 40.
"For example, Jean Baudrillard claims that in the Gulf War 'the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity and the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean'.

Sokal and Briernont comment on this that the concept of 'hyperspace' offered here simply 'does not exist in either mathematics or physics' and that it makes no sense to ask what a Euclidean space of war would be like, let alone to hypothesize the kind of space which Baudrillard has just 'invented' through his misunderstanding and misuse of scientific terminology. "
Baudrillard's text would have been unremarkable as a piece of metaphorical (and somewhat hyperbolic!) literary commentary, but he intended so much more.

And from page 41.
"For example, there is a much referred to article by the anthropologist Emily Martin on 'The Egg and the Sperm', which argues that 'the picture of egg and sperm drawn in popular as well as scientific accounts of reproductive biology relies on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female'.

'The stereotypes imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts but also that women are less worthy than men'. In such literature, it is asserted, we have a 'passive', 'coy damsel' female egg, versus the 'active', 'macho' male sperm, and it does indeed seem that some textbook accounts do employ this tendentious imagery.

But there is more to it than this. Patriarchal scientists are supposed by their postmodernist critics to have inevitably, given their subjective and politically contaminated presuppositions, got the science of this relationship wrong. For it is now believed that the (female) egg actively 'grabs the (male) sperm' (which has swum a long way before this happens).

But did male ideological presuppositions about male superiority and aggression as a matter of fact hold up or block the new view? Does it make sense, as an account of scientific activity, to say that any such presuppositions could have produced this particular hold up?

(This is not to deny that male preoccupations have indeed held up the proper investigation of female physiology.)

There are two issues here. One is the metaphorical resonance that various accounts of the egg and sperm have in relationship to gender stereotypes - for example, Scott Gilbert builds on this to write (vulgarly) about 'fertilisation as a kind of martial gang-rape' - 'the egg is a whore attracting the soldiers like a magnet', and so on.

But this resonance is in any case a gross exaggeration: no such phrases actually appear in the serious scientific literature on this subject.

All of this metaphorical interpretation, typical though it is of postmodernist concerns, seems to me relatively trivial and silly, and doesn't have far to go, because anyone who wanted to generalize either view of sperm and egg relations to justify or explain the nature of any larger-scale male-female interactions would surely be expressing a ludicrous essentialism - 'it's been like that from the sperm and egg on'.

This sort of thing rather misses the point about the potential for adjustment in male-female relations; but it also makes a much more damaging second implication about science - that there was a failure of objectivity here, and that the 'new' discovery corrected a masculinist bias in scientific work.

But, as Paul Gross shows, it is quite false to claim that male scientists had ignored the active role of the female egg until prodded into admitting it by feminists. It had been pointed out by Just in 1919 (also citing a paper of 1878) that the egg 'pulls in' or 'engulfs' the sperm. And this view was common, says Gross, in textbooks from 1920 onwards. "
I very much enjoyed this book, which repays close reading, but also despaired at the idiocy which walks amongst us.

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