13TH TRAIT OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: Postmodernism (in Lyotard’s sense)

In a recent post I offered a reading of the first paragraph of Zizek’s LESS THAN NOTHING as proof that he is not writing incoherent rodomontades or empty platitudes. It is an example of how Zizek reasons reflexively, analogically, imagistically, transversally without going through the step by step paces of an analytical argument. If Chomsky thinks that it is irrational nonsense then he is being perhaps deliberately a little narrow-minded for polemical purposes. I think that he is just wrong on this accusation of irrationality and cognitive emptiness. If Chomsky thinks he can do better than Zizek’s piece, which contains a definition, a development, illustrations from diverse domains, he should try it and compare his “rational kernel” of evident truths to Zizek’s paragraph, and he will see that Zizek packs a lot into just one paragraph.

I do not know why Chomsky is being so aggressive and dismissive, but I think it has next to nothing to do with Zizek, or even French philosophy in general; I think it is mainly a sort of “internal memorandum” denouncing “postmodern radicals” in America, that he runs up against in his various venues. The problem is not Zizek, who he has never met, and whose books he has never read, but “Zizek”-quoting militants, who represent a political danger in his eyes and who, incidentally, dilute his intellectual leadership. Otherwise, why is Chomsky not denouncing American Continental-style philosophers such as Hubert Dreyfus or Stanley Cavell,

The “traits of Continental Philosophy” I have been expounding are nothing special, they are no magical formula for intellectual success. They are stylistic indications, pointing out family resemblances, and each trait has substantial overlap with many of the others. They are not definitory of Continental Philosophy, and I think they apply to Chomsky too, although often in a stunted way, but he doesn’t want to take these traits into account in his idea of rationality. Zizek does, and makes them central. That is his valuation of the relative importance of these traits, it’s certainly not an error or an irrational posturing.

This is the point, Zizek is not the precursor of some “genetic mutation”, he is just doing philosophy, and he is steeped in the tradition, including the recent French contributions to that tradition. The traits I list are no arbitrary affirmations, they are taken from my previous posts, over the last three years of blogging, and from my past experience with French philosophy, which I have been reading for over 40 years. I don’t think that these traits are all that special, and in my other posts I show that some or all of them characterise Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book ALL THINGS SHINING (they don’t like Derrida, or Deleuze, and Dreyfus in his podcast called Badiou a “bad” philosopher, and said he liked Bourdieu but detested the way he wrote, yet they themselves exemplify these traits). They also apply to James Hillman, a Jungian psychoanalyst, and to Andrew Pickering, JohnLaw and Bruno Latour, contemporary sociologists of science.

What more can I do? I can’t procede deductively, and multiplying examples of my reading of extracts seems pointless. I have given some useful stylistic indications, some “tips”, for understanding that particular sort of style. I have already said that I prefer Chomsky’s politics to Zizek’s. But Zizek is certainly more philosophically sophisticated, there is more going on in a page of Zizek than in 10 pages of Chomsky. Is philosophy a bad thing?

Chomsky has no love for “postmodernists”? I don’t either, but luckily I have lived a very sheltered life, I have never met any. I left Australia before the postmodernists arrived. I came to France in 1980 and I met Lyotard and he gave me his definition of postmodernism. He is the only one to my knowledge to have given a definition (incredulity towards meta-narratives). This defintion has the advantage (or the disadvantage) of making Chomsky postmodern (except in his naive idea of science) and most American “postmodernists” not at all postmodern, because quite credulous. Lyotard explains that his definition is not even historical, that Diderot (in some books, not all, for example in JACQUES LE FATALISTE) is postmodern, as is Montaigne. Pyrrho the sceptic is postmodern, but so is some of Plato.

13) Postmodernism: scepticism with respect to totalising narratives of legitimation, unified subjects of history, and with respect to the regulative ideal of convergence of the plurality of perspectives of interpretatation, and of the multiplicity of modes of existence towards a monist final framework.

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