The Critical Reader



This is the first appearance of a column on language usage that I hope to contribute to TVR every other month from now on—perhaps even more often, if time and inspiration coincide. For readers who want some indication of what they can expect in this column, I’ll try to provide that in these introductory paragraphs. As those of you who have read my earlier TVR pieces know, my writings often straddle the domains of linguistics and politics, and some readers of TVR may see me as seeking to inculcate my own political views under the guise of writing about language, especially since my views are not those that generally prevail among American academics and intellectuals.


Readers of earlier contributions of mine to TVR may recall that that such seemingly abstract and academic questions as whether the Eskimos have more words for snow- and ice-related phenomena than those who live in the temperate zone, and whether language is a “living, growing thing,” and whether the Oxford English Dictionary is an authority on usage questions, quickly turn out to have political and social implications that take one far from the scholar’s study or the word-fancier’s playpen. Similarly, discussions of ‘prescriptivism’ versus ‘descriptivism’ hardly have a chance to shift out of first gear before the air is thick with charges of racism and elitism. Some readers of TVR may be dismayed by this connection, and wish to see politics ignored (especially when the political implications are ones they find uncongenial), but the price to be paid for turning away from the sometimes ugly facts is to be condemned to triviality and marginality—a price I hope few readers of TVR are willing to pay. After all, what the close connection between language and politics means is that language—what TVR is all about—is not superficial, not a game, not a toy, but a serious and central aspect of human life.


Half a century after George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” most readers should be familiar with the idea that politics has an effect on the way we use words, and that words, in turn, have an effect on politics. But it may not be clear even to relatively sophisticated readers and amateurs of language that politics, broadly conceived, is today not just one more force at work in shaping our language, but by far the strongest such force—so much so that it is practically impossible to discuss any aspect of language usage without finding oneself at least hip-deep in politics. It is not the Great Vowel Shift or the conquest by the Norman French of the native Britons that shapes the English language today, but the public-relations consultants, the ‘spin doctors,’ the institutional ‘spokespersons,’ the salesmen of ideas, and all the other verbal warriors seeking to have their way with us by twisting language to their own advantage.


The potential problem for this column is aggravated by the fact—as I see it—that the manipulation of language for political ends is not randomly distributed along the political spectrum; it seems to me that such manipulation is practised much more by the literary, the intellectual, and the academic than by others—and they have a culture and a politics that tends to clump close to one end of that spectrum. So my treatments of the phenomenon may seem to lean to one side, and be open to charges of partisanship and unfairness. In response to such anticipated objections, I can only promise to try to be as fair as my own limitations permit, to consider carefully whatever responses my columns bring me, and to reply to my critics either publicly or privately, as they wish and as space permits.



The Critical Reader: the meaning of ‘Postmodernism’ in an Age of Terrorism


Since the early years of the twentieth century, the intellectual world of the West has seen the emergence and to some extent the triumph of a school of thought with many names: Postmodernism, Relativism, Anti-foundationalism, anti-Platonism, anti-metaphysicalism, anti-essentialism, anti-dualism, pragmatism, and yet more. No single name is universally accepted because many members of the school believe that their particular variants of the school’s common core of thought differ enough from the others to require their own names; some may even deny that there is any ‘school’ for which a blanket name would be appropriate. But it is clear to most observers that there is much in common among the strains of thought bearing any one of those names; that what they have in common is important enough to make them a school; and that the school needs a name. The name most often used, and the one I will adopt here, is Postmodernism (PM).


The one point that seems central to PM in all its variants is a conviction that there can be no appeal to ‘objective truth’; everything we think, postmodernists tell us, is the product of our self-interest, our cultural prejudices, our wish to prevail. And this view seems to lead inexorably into the even stranger notion that there is no such thing as objective reality: not only can we know nothing, really, but there is nothing, really, for us to know. Even the hard sciences and mathematics have been called simply stories that we like to tell ourselves, and stories quite possibly very different from those that other cultures elsewhere on Earth, or at least those of alien creatures in distant galaxies, tell themselves with equal justification. And this philosophical position, in itself so abstract as to seem to have no bearing whatever on ordinary life, has in fact had some very curious effects on Western politics and cultural life, especially since the attack of September 11, 2001.


Since the Postmodernists have not elected a pope, there is no single figure among them whose views and formulations can fairly be taken as authoritative for all of them, but there are a few who are widely regarded as leaders or at least central figures, and I take two of these—Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty—as representative enough to count as spokesmen for PM. Both of them have expressed their views clearly and concisely, so it will not be necessary to paraphrase them; their own words can be cited, or quoted, and at sufficient length to guard against charges of ‘quoting out of context.’ This is good luck, because if their statements were to be paraphrased, the process of paraphrasing might well make them sound more cogent than they really are. I hope to discuss Rorty’s views in a future column; here I will deal with a recent and widely-discussed New York Times Op-Ed piece by Fish, published October 15, 2001. Its text is to be found at . I urge you to read it—and if possible, print it out so as to have it in front of you—and then return here to consider my critique of it.


I find in Fish’s text the following main assertions:

  1. PM is simply the recognition that there is no universally accepted standard of good and evil, or of a vocabulary for discussing such things.

  2. The postmodern point of view, far from disarming us in our struggle against those who perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, puts us in a better position to carry out that struggle, since it enables us to see the adversary as one with intelligible, if unacceptable, motives, and hence as someone whose plans and actions can be foreseen and defeated.

  3. One example of the advantages afforded by the postmodern stance is the realization that the attackers were not cowards, but rather very brave, if badly misguided, men. This is a truth about our enemies, however reluctant we may be to grant them any virtue at all, and we are the better prepared to fight our enemies when we know the truth about them.

My comments:

  1. One would have supposed that only PM’s worst enemy would say that it is really just the realization that people tend to disagree, and absolutist people disagree absolutely, but here we have one of PM’s principal spokesmen—perhaps the closest thing to its doyen—saying just that. The ingenuousness of his remark is touching, but he is wrong. It is not PM’s distinctive virtue to have noticed the elementary fact that men disagree—most sentient creatures realize very early in their lives that there is a lot of disagreement in the world, even on what would seem to be the most fundamental and indubitable matters—but to have vastly misunderstood and exaggerated its significance. The defining contribution of the postmodernists is the notion that disbelief in objective reality, as reflected in humanity’s widely differing and irreconcilable views on so many fundamental matters, should be the foundation of all our thinking, planning, and living.

  2. Again, postmodernists are overwhelmed by the realization that the enemy thinks that he is right. It is certainly good to know one’s enemy, and not to underestimate his powers, but how is a realistic estimate of an enemy inconsistent with the view that he is evil or irrational or both? Fish’s contention that branding our enemy with those terms will preclude our understanding him—where understanding him means learning how to defeat him, not coming to sympathize with him—is simply not borne out by our experience. (Debate on this point is muddied by the ambiguity of understanding —an ambiguity that some postmodernists have not hesitated to take advantage of.) Certainly the view that one’s enemy is evil will preclude our coming to sympathize with him—but is this our object? When we call an enemy “evil,” we do not suppose that everyone, the enemy included, will agree with that characterization, we are simply asserting that by the standards we think right, he is so. That he would disagree is not something to make us reconsider, but simply further evidence of his benightedness.

    The effect on most people of exposure to PM as defined by Fish is to sap their confidence in their own values, to weaken their will to resist aggression by others, to confuse them on moral issues—and some at least of the postmodernists are quite aware of this, and seem not at all unhappy about it. The fact that Edward Said is one of those who have called for the rejection of “false universals” suggests that not every postmodernist is simply trying to arm the West better for its battle.

  3. It is clear that those who called the September 11 attackers cowardly were reacting as most people in shock do until they regain their composure: they hurled every possible charge and insult at the terrorists, just as we throw any rock we can get our hands on at a mad dog. (Whether the attackers were actually brave is another question. They carried out a mission they knew would result in their death, but believed that that death would instantly transport them to eternal life in paradise. I think we usually regard those in such an extreme state as being beyond the categories of bravery and cowardice, which properly apply only to people caught in the ordinary dilemma of wanting to live, but also to carry out some duty that may result in their death.) But what does one’s position on this issue have to do with PM? Dinesh D’Souza, for example, is hardly a postmodernist, yet he was one of the first to point out that the charge of cowardice was undeserved, and in any case irrelevant. In calling that charge false, Susan Sontag and the others were right on the specific issue, but wrong on a larger one: more sensitive observers might have understood that the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attack was not the appropriate moment in which to correct the diction of the survivors.

There is a great deal more to say about PM, and I hope to say some of it in later pieces, but one point, I think, should be clear already. Either PM is merely the trivial observation that people disagree, as Fish seems to say, in which case it is too trivial to mention, or it is something much more ominous. I take the latter view. Fish, writing in the days just after the September 11 attack, was trying hard to present PM as a soldier in the war against terrorism, and an ally of the West in the clash of civilizations; it is telling that in order to do so, he had to utterly trivialize his own philosophy.


But before Fish stuffed PM into uniform and made it salute, it made very different noises—and is still making them when not on display in the Op Ed page of the New York Times , but talking to its own constituency. When among friends, PM has no higher praise to award a book or performer or objet d’art than to call it subversive . It need not be specified what it is subversive of; everything in Western civilization is to be subverted. In normal speech, subvert is a transitive verb; the essence of PM is that it has turned that verb into an intransitive one.