Intelligent Design, holocaust denial, and postmodernism
MrsDoF and I just returned from a lecture by Stanley Fish, a scholar of literature and law, entitled “Three on a match; Intelligent Design, Holocaust Denial, and Postmodernism”.
I liked this guy a lot; he put his finger right on one of the two things1 that are bothering me about the liberal/conservative frame bordering today’s political environment. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but both have adopted a charicature of postmodern thought for their strategic method. Which is: to use intellectual relativism, the trivial observation that our conclusions about reality are colored by our experiences, to invalidate the other guy’s arguments.
Here are a few quotes, in no particular order, as nearly as I can remember them. Some are just fragments:
- “If anybody appeals to a higher value in your presence, watch your back. There may be something really sinister going on.” (I especially liked this one)
- “Gerald Graff has never mentioned Intelligent Design, except to say that he was outraged his ideas were being misinterpreted and hijacked by Christian ‘teach the controversy’ Intelligent Design.”
- Graff’s point is to teach real controversies among experts, not made-up ones from political activists.”
- ”…liberalism’s privileging of tolerance over judgment”
- “Demographic diversity is a simple fact that must be accounted for, but diversity as an agenda makes no sense at all”
- “Intelligent Design advocates are rightly offended when someone links them – as I have just done – to holocaust denial. There is no moral equivalency between the two, but they share an equivalent strategy hijacked from postmodern thought. They are playing the same shell game.”
- “Intelligent design seeks access to the debate by a strategy that empties the debate of content.”
- “Postmodernism is liberalism taken very seriously” (Fish then exclaimed that this was the first time he’d put it in exactly those words. He then repeated them with a very satisfied look on his face.)
- “Attempts to translate the decorums of literary criticism to science, or science to religion, or religion to science, fall flat: interdisciplinarianism in methodology is a bad idea. Each discipline has its tested and proven tradition of inquiry – precision is always local to the question it is there to answer.”
- “The essence of postmodernism is that knowledge is historically contextual and not transcendental. But this observation is not a method in any particular field of inquiry. Postmodernism answers no questions, and does no work of inquiry at all, but you can do political or rhetorical work with it.”
There was a lot more, and I’m sure it will percolate through the moldy coffee grounds that substitute for my brain. Fish came down on the side of my long-standing conviction that there are two kinds of authority; administrative and expertise. One is conferred by status in a hierarchy, the other indicates you actually know something. Occasionally the second coincides with the first, but not always.
- The other thing that’s bothering me about it is that each frame (‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’) represent package deals. There is hardly any more certain indicator of cessation of thought than the acceptance of an intellecual package encompassing hundreds of issues.
- Here’s an interview with Fish on his book, There’s no such thing as free speech (and it’s a good thing, too)
- There was a hilarious moment when an obvious sophomore took to the question mic to ask a painfully sophomoric question from a postmodern perspective. Fish engaged him for several minutes on the subject of historicity and reality (that the experts, most of the time, are right), and concluded; “The postmodern observation that experience colors perception of reality is something that occurs to most students around the third week of their sophomore year. Get over it!”