The Culture Wars were supposed to be over years ago; the culture warriors in battleground disciplines such as history have picked out what elements of academic theory they find useful and the vast majority of those few people who were wrapped up in the battles over the Western canon and radical deconstruction and post-colonial theory have moved on. Or not. New York Times "critic-at-large" Edward Rothstein had called postmodernism’s moral relativism "perverse" in the wake of the September 11 attacks; noted theorist Stanley Fish has popped up to defend himself and his field, and the Culture War battle lines begin to be redrawn. For instance, Heinrich Faust of the Twelth Parsec (link via Instapundit) took a thoughtful whack at Stanley Fish’s recent defense of postmodernism in Harper’s; Faust’s chief complaint is that Fish is downplaying what postmodernism really means. I think that’s true, but not the way that Faust does. Fish is certainly not highlighting his goofier ideological brethren, nor is he making a stand for a strong relativism in which the mere fact that we cannot find an absolute and objective proof of something means that it does not exist. Fish’s detractors often argue against what they want him to say. For instance, Peter Berkowitz’s response seems willfully disingenuous; he surely understands that Fish’s claim that we cannot "[justify] our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies" does not equate, as Berkowitz writes, to "the sensible though innocuous proposition that not everybody will always grasp what universal standards require." Fish is saying that those standards do not exist, that there are not and cannot be universally accepted yardsticks by which to judge justice or morality or any other human construction.
I don’t think Fish’s position reduces either to platitudes or an inability to distinguish good from evil. I hope mine doesn’t, and I tend to bat for Fish’s team on theory issues. I think that America is a better country than Saudi Arabia by any standard I care to judge by. But a dedicated Islamicist might disagree — where I pointed to Americans’ health and wealth, he might point to Saudi Arabia’s closer hewing to Islamic law. Indeed, some of the qualities I view as demonstrating America’s superiority (our tolerance, our ingrained sense of religious freedom, our concern for human rights) might be signs of just the opposite in his mind. Without appealing to an outside framework, is there any way to prove that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness I support is the best way to judge these things?
Edward Rothstein got his licks in for a wider audience in the New York Times (link via Tapped). Rothstein has been a longtime critic of postmodernism, having reported on the Sokal hoax, and he’s clearly enjoying his chance to thump Fish. But his claim that postmodernism is relativism renamed is unconvincing:
For in the end, whether Mr. Fish or anybody else believes in the existence of truth is irrelevant. The crucial point is that he believes that there is no reliable standard for proving it to an opponent.
But doesn’t that lead to a form of relativism? An observer might note that each party to a quarrel asserts a different truth, yet conclude that both are equally valid because neither can be objectively proved false. In Fishean pomo, all we have are competing claims, whether the issue is the numerical value of pi or the assertion that the Mossad destroyed the World Trade Center.
The value of pi is precisely the wrong example for Rothstein to use; to judge by his review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, Rothstein is no mathematician, however, so we’ll make allowances. Math relies on axioms (also called "postulates"), rules agreed on in advance; a different choice of axioms is why you can have planar geometry, in which parallel lines never converge, and hyperbolic geometry, in which they do. The forms of math are equally true; they simply rely on different starting points.
Postmodernism says that two opposing rulesets can be equally internally valid. This is problematic for people who believe that moral authority stems inarguably from a particular source; Justice Scalia, who writes that democracy upset the notion that government derives its authority from God, bases his argument about the morality of capital punishment on presuppositions that others might not hold; his arguments about the Church’s position on the death penalty are not meaningless gameplaying, but they are only valid within his framework. The same is true for any claim to objective authority, and that’s where I think Rothstein gets worked up; he’s a critic with very definite opinions about artistic merit. This isn’t to say he’s necessarily narrow-minded (he likes Tolkien and, more surprisingly, text adventure games), but he’s anti-democratic:
[Art] is engaged in constant acts of discrimination. Moreover, the ability to create it is no more distributed according to democratic principles than is the ability to play basketball like Michael Jordan or chess like Gary Kasparov. There are differences between us at birth that the civil order must ignore but the esthetic order is beholden to. Even the evaluation of art is guided by such undemocratic gauges as cultivated taste and extensive experience.
I don’t believe that all art is created equal; I don’t think the N.E.A. believes that, and I’m fairly confident that Stanley Fish doesn’t believe that. But I reside within a system; like Rothstein, I’m not an objective judge. When I read Rothstein on the essential elitism of art or his dismissal of the teeming masses of the web, I wonder: is Rothstein outraged at Fish because he thinks Fish’s relativism gives aid and comfort to America’s enemies? Or is Rothstein outraged because Fish suggests that without an appeal to some outside authority the difference between the art of Rothstein’s beloved orchestras and the art of retro synthpop depends solely on your point of view?