Book Review

Book cover image
Experiments Against Reality
The fate of culture in the postmodern age

Roger Kimball
Ivan R. Dee, 2000, 349 pages



I t could be asked, when discussing postmodernist or deconstructionist philosophy, whether one is in fact beating a dead horse. The postmodernists have not stood still long enough to enable critics to adequately criticize them, but have moved on to greener pastures, leaving behind a corpus of text that declares that text is meaningless, a body of philosophy whose principal tenet is that philosophy is garbage, and a skeleton of "truths" that assert that there is no such thing as truth.

The inherently self-contradictory nature of such philosophical rhubarb is, of course, obvious to all except those who practiced it. By virtue of its own presuppositions, postmodernism was doomed from the start. And that is the reason postmodernists embraced it: their reveling in the supposed decline of Western culture produced a decline in Western culture, and their adoption of nihilism annihilated nihilism as a viable point of view, as it was probably subconsciously intended to do. In this sense Derrida was right: there was, it turned out, nothing to postmodernism outside its text, and as Roger Kimball points out with scathing, erudite and witty prose, very little inside the text either, at least very little worth preserving.

Thus, even if the vampire of postmodernism is dead (which is by no means certain), beating on it may still be worthwhile if only to make sure it stays dead. The corrosive effect of postmodernist philosophy has permeated throughout those areas of culture where truth was always elusive and subjective: history has been transformed into an autocratic and divisive multiculturalism; discussion of issues touching on race, homosexuality, and other topics dear to the radical left is verboten; and conservationism has become polluted with ecoactivism, ecosocialism, and ecoterrorism.

In the introduction, Kimball points out that by undercutting the belief in the existence of truth, deconstructionists were really trying to undercut the concept of value. This accounts for much of its appeal among bored intellectuals in academia unable to either stand apart from each other or experience an adrenaline rush from their work other than by posing as enfants terrible; unable to contribute to actual knowledge, they therefore began chewing away at the foundations of Western civilization by pretending that truth is false and ignorance is knowledge. A necessary starting point for attacking Western values is to marginalize them by denying that Western values possess any universality. And what better place to start than by denying that the concept of ``value'' itself has meaning?

Ultimately, of course, their goal was not to eliminate ``values'' and ``truth'' per se, but to substitute Western ones with their own values and ``truths'' derived primarily from '60s anti-establishment counter-culture. If truth is meaningless, the Foucaldian belief that ``truth is always and everywhere a function of power'' cannot itself be a true or meaningful statement, but merely an exhortation to submerge one's critical faculties in propaganda whose utilitarian purpose is not to further understanding of the world but to buttress pre-existing radical anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, radical feminist, or radical leftist ideologies.

One look at modern-day college curricula with courses on the ``hermeneutics of TV commercials'', ``lesbian art and architecture'' and other absurdities should convince anyone that truth and value are hopelessly intertwined, and that an attack on one is really an attack on the other. The new trend to value nothing, even knowledge, and to characterize teachers as "learning facilitators" and self-esteem counselors instead of communicators of knowledge could ultimately be as devastating to Western society as the New Math was to mathematical literacy.

Moreover, postmodernism provides philosophical underpinnings for antinomianism, or moral relativism, which is the view that Nazism, for example, is just an alternative worldview and the Gulags were expressions of cultural uniqueness comparable to McDonald's hamburgers, only (and here is where the enfant terrible comes in) perhaps not quite as bad. It is a world where victory is defeat, economic trade is exploitation, and growth is decline; a ``liberal utopia'' where we treat everything ``as a product of time and chance''. In other words, a Nietzschean universe where there are no philosophical values, no right and wrong, and anything goes.

More than they realize, deconstructionists were influenced by an envy of science, which tries to explain natural phenomena without reference to social and cultural values. While early Victorians were horrified at the injustice of a lion killing an innocent deer, our new understanding of the ecological role of predator-prey relationships has eliminated such moral outrage over animals and other natural phenomena. But deconstructionists took the concept of natural phenomena farther than any scientist ever did. Unable to find any solid experimental or rational basis for their socially activist concepts, deconstructionists concluded that all opinions are meaningless, and were only artificial constructions created for the purpose of supporting the status quo. As absurd as it may sound, academics frequently criticize scientific theories and even experimental results that threaten their activist worldview, as if empirically-observed phenomena and conclusions drawn therefrom could be delegitimized by impugning sinister motivations to the researchers.

People, of course, live in a cultural milieu and interact with each other in accordance with their social values. But if one steps outside the scientific and technical sphere and peers into the darkness of 21st century society, one encounters a moral and cultural poverty to which postmodernism and its congeners are a major contributor. Society's philosophical poverty mirrors the aesthetic vacuum that is contemporary music since the end of the Schönberg era, and the inversion of contemporary art which elevates ugliness and shock value above insight and creativity. Ironically and unintentionally imitating life, artists mimic the crass commercial culture which postmodernism, like existentialism before it, claimed to despise. This surrender to a stark cultural wasteland represents a profound loss of faith among artists and philosophers alike and a tragedy for Western civilization.

Anyway, back to the book.

Kimball is not a typical dour critic of philosophy. In fact, he barely mentions philosophy or postmodernism until three quarters of the way through the book. Instead, he carries the reader into an appreciation of the literary merits of the deconstructionists' subjects. It is possible to sense the attraction that they must have felt for this approach. Each of the 16 essays focuses on a different literary figure, philosopher, or postmodernist, including T.S. Eliot, Auden, Wallace Stevens, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Francis "Often-Wrong" Fukuyama. The purpose is apparently didactic: rather than discuss his underlying philosophy, Kimball seems to be trying to show by example how he believes literary criticism should be done. But as a literary critic criticizing literary critics, Kimball is too close to the subject matter. His non-confrontational approach may endear Kimball to his colleagues and win praise from the Times Literary Supplement, but it dilutes his message to the point of homeopathy. His essay on John Stuart Mill, the apostle of radical liberalism, and the criticism of Mill's philosophy by James Fitzjames Stephen in his great work Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, for example, tells us only that the history of arguments about freedom and morality is long and distinguished. As for the decline in admiration for T.S. Eliot in colleges, so what if professors at university literature departments think John Ashbery is a better writer, especially if their only reason is their distaste for Eliot's putative anti-Semitism? If students can manage to get through Ashbery's stuff, they can decide for themselves. These questions really have little to do with the core beliefs of postmodernism.

It is clear that Kimball has strong opinions and interesting ideas about postmodernism and about the subjects discussed in this book. He is also capable of writing great sentences:

A deconstructionist without the term metonymy is a pitiful thing, like a dog missing its favorite bone.
And in his article deconstructing the sexually perverted lifestyle and bizarre philosophy of the leftist radical Michel Foucault, he writes what is probably the ultimate putdown: that Foucault makes even people like the lithocephalic left-wing linguist Noam Chomsky appear as if voices of sanity and moderation by comparison.

But in most of the other essays in Experiments against Reality, Kimball drowns his ideas in his love of literary criticism. He does not question the basic methodology and tactics of the deconstructionists, but only comes to slightly milder conclusions. Their assumption that the truth (or the realization that there is no truth) can be arrived at by criticizing other writers is unquestioningly accepted. In fact, the main part of the book, the title and brilliant introduction notwithstanding, is less about postmodernism and the fate of culture than a collection of essays about various literary and cultural figures. Except in the introduction and to some extent in the articles on Nietzsche and Foucault, the author's philosophical ideas are scarcely mentioned and the book comes across as just another volume of interesting but unremarkable literary criticism. In other words, an example of writing barely one step above that most debased and universally despised form of literary criticism, the lowly book review.

November 8, 2002