BMCR 2001.04.16

Response: Friedrich on Crafton on Schiappa, The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece

Response to 2001.03.09

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Post-modern = post-mortem?

Schiappa’s “small volume”, Crafton writes in his review, “is, I believe, a very important book because it sets forth a methodology that should engender a rigorous debate in the humanities, particularly a humanities in the wake of such disturbances as the Alan Sokol debacle, a humanities that needs to look much harder at its methodologies. Schiappa offers a levelheaded approach that incorporates healthy portions of poststructuralist theory along with what we call rational interpretation.”

At first blush this looks very promising: the humanities are trying to face up to the postmodern folly which they had allowed to operate within their ranks and which Sokal’s Swiftian satire had so mercilessly exposed rendering us the laughing stock of the natural sciences. But a closer look shows that it continues unabated in Schiappa’s approach and Crafton’s uncritical advocacy of it.

Crafton’s phrase “the Alan Sokol debacle” is somewhat misleading: it was not Alan Sokal who suffered the debacle; it was the postmodern quarters within the Humanities that suffered the debacle at the hands of Alan Sokal. Crafton’s way of putting things further suggests that Humanities and postmodernism are identical. This, fortunately for the former, is not the case; even in a discipline such as Eng. Lit., which was (and still is) the one most imbued with the postmodern folly, it was not total, and here, too, people are beginning to sober up. Classics, to its credit, has been only partly affected; similarly History, where postmodernism seems to have run its course (see TLS, February 23, 2001, “All Quiet On The Postmodern Front”). Perhaps Jan Kott is right now who once said that postmodern reads like post-mortem. But we should not get our hopes up too soon.

Now what could be meant by what Crafton lauds as Schiappa’s “levelheaded approach”? ‘Levelheaded’ sounds like common sense, something postmodernists usually do not want to be seen dead with. And what is levelheaded about mixing rational interpretation, which proceeds by argument and evidence, with “healthy portions of poststructuralist theory”? In the latter wholly different winds prevail: the winds of rhetorical force (will to power), caprice (‘anything goes’), and unargued dogma (in Schiappa offered tellingly as “‘key beliefs'”). Rational interpretation would be instantly paralyzed by the admixture of the willful irrationalism inherent in poststructuralist doctrines. This, and the invocation of the gospel of Kuhn and Foucault, are exactly what Sokal’s Swiftian satire had targeted. Yes indeed, the Humanities must take a harder look at their methodologies in the wake of Sokal’s satire. But Schiappa’s approach does not do it; it is rather part of the disease Sokal has diagnosed, of which Crafton thinks it is the cure. This is most obvious in Schiappa’s deconstructive game of reversing the binary of philosophy/rhetoric by presenting Isocrates as the philosopher of logos and Aristotle as a politically motivated rhetorician, a sophist. These clever and self-indulgent games of deconstruction have been played ad nauseam for the past decades; they have long ago lost their dazzling shock value and prove today only one thing: the vacuity of the postmodern enterprise.

There is a passage that reveals a lot about the intellectual climate of postmodernism: for rejecting the statement “JFK died in 1881” as false, Schiappa risks being branded by his fellow postmodernists as a “traditionalist, positivist, objectivist, foundationalist who labor(s) under the delusion that [he has] access to objective and uninterpreted facts” (Schiappa, p. 60f). Let me use an untrivial example. If I reject as false, on the strength of cogent evidence, the assertion that the Nazi genocide of the European Jewry in the early forties of the 20th century did not happen, and am therefore branded as a “traditionalist, positivist, objectivist, foundationalist who labors under the delusion that I have access to objective and uninterpreted facts”—what would this branding of me amount to? It would amount to a subtle form of holocaust denial, and it would place my detractors in the most odious company! Poststructuralists may ponder this when they attach their scare quotes, the supreme hallmark of postmodernist theoretical sophistication, to the words fact and objective.