Loyal readers (I see you, Mom) may recall my discussion of Martin Amis (and Ian Buruma's) scathe of postmodernism--or, at least, its political utility. About a week ago, Matt (jkelsofan) emailed me a Stanley Fish piece from the Chronicle Review about a new book by Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, that touches on many of the same issues. Because Fish's argument is so well articulated and compelling--there are some problems, which I'll discuss later--I feel the need to summarize his, and Brown's, points about tolerance, liberal pluralism, and pomo.
He begins with a discussion over the fatwah--a phrase I'm still trying to work into every day conversation, as in, I wish I could issue a fatwah against [insert TA name]--against Salman Rushdie. The issue introduces the question of the difference of values; namely, the difference of values in terms of free speech.
Ignored was the possibility that what appeared to be an entirely negative and unprincipled act might be the product of an alternative set of principles — preferring community to individual rights, positive morality to respect for all points of view, truth to tolerance, the sanctity of God to the sanctity of choice.Principles, Fish suggests, are always context-bound; as the forerunners of Western values, he throws Locke, Kant, Rawls onto the table. By placing tolerance--the acceptance of difference--in the latter half of the aforementioned East/West value binaries, Fish questions its objectivity. Tolerance is preached as a liberal value, but what, asks Wendy Brown, does it mean?
Fish agrees with Brown's critique of the a priori conception of tolerance, which, like any value, is structured by social mores. The naturalization of differences produces a self contradiction:
...it does more than that: It legitimizes, and even demands, the exercise of intolerance, when the objects of intolerance are persons who, because of their overattachment to culture, are deemed incapable of being tolerant. Live and let live won't work, we are often told, if the other guy is determined to kill you because he believes that his religion or his ethnic history commands him to.The problem of tolerance, then, isn't that--like Amis suggested--it legitimizes moral injustice and human rights abuses, writing them off as "difference" (I don't think this is, as Jamie wrote in his comment on the post, an issue that extends very far beyond academia). The problem is what the liberal West does under the banner of pluralism when we conflate divergence with impenetrability--when it "cannot itself tolerate persons or practices that do not respect the boundaries and distinctions...it presuppose." Such as, in the case of indignance over the fatwah, free speech.
Fish and Brown differ over the solubility of the tolerance/intolerance binary that she deconstructs. This is where Fish's argument gets trickier to read (you can tell he's getting worked up over the meta-levels of the problem). Do systems of values always entail either 1) a belief in their specificity--free to be you and me--or 2) a sense of universalism--free to be me? Fish sees an insolubility:
The fact that her analysis does not (and in my view could not) deliver a program for improving the world (or even a set of reasons for rejecting liberal tolerance) makes it no different from any other effort (always doomed) to derive a politics from the discourses of postmodernism, anti-essentialism, and anti-foundationalism.He pinpoints the inescapable problem of post-structuralism: anything beyond inrreconciliable difference--nothing more than awareness, which he dubs "the theory mistake"--requires an essential subject--some valuation. You can either preach tolerance, which surreptitiously discounts the "non-tolerant," or preach intolerance, which overtly discounts others, but, inevitably, you're always preaching something.
This is, I think, where he errs: If viewed as a totalizing system, postmodernism is, as Fish says, insoluble with political action (which requires some totalization, the acceptance of at least one value (i.e., murder is bad). However, postmodernism is not without utility: The awareness of difference, or situated knowledge, increases the efficacy of political action. For example, the case of anti-feminism outside of the West: countering such a system necessitates a universal value (gender equality) but is best achieved with localized mechanisms (such as alternate interpretations of the Koran). Because of its serviceability as a lens, or tool, we should remember not to throw postmodern thinking out with liberal pluralist or Theoretical bathwater.
And now, back to pictures of myself in elementary school.