Help! Trump stole our deconstructionism!
Casey Williams writes in the New York Times:
For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.
And Williams ought to know. He's a grad student in Duke University's literature program, where "postmodernism"–the idea that truth is just a social construct–rules. Duke is the home of Social Text, the famous journal of all that is postmodernistically trendy where NYU physics professor Alan Sokal published his hoax article, ""Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," arguing that the theory of quantum gravity is just a social construct as well.
Here's how deconstructivism works, according to Casey:
These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.
From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.
Yup, Alan Sokal, call your office. That white male microscope….
But then along comes Donald Trump–and there's one piece of "truth" that even the most deconstructionist of deconstructionists believe is not "socially constructed": Trump lies. Or maniipulates the facts, or something relativistic or other.
Mexican immigration, Islamic terrorism, free trade: For Trump, truth is always more about how people feel than what may be empirically verifiable. Trump admits as much in “The Art of the Deal,” where he describes his sales strategy as “truthful hyperbole.” For Trump, facts are fragile, and truth is flexible.
Uh-oh, how did this happen? Deconstructivism was supposed to be a tool of the left–leftists arguing that, pointing out that, say, men and women are different makes you a tool of the patriarchy. Now Trump is socially constructing his own facts. Like "Islamic terrorism." Trump is cleverly persuading people that it actually exists!
But since Casey's a good deconstructionist himself–after all, he's at Duke–he can't actually come out and say that it's a proven fact that there's no such thing as Islamic terrorism. (For one thing, people would laugh.)
So what's a postmodernist to do?
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward.
Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed.
Poor Casey does proffer this solution:
Even in a “post-truth era,” a critical attitude allows us to question dominant systems of thought, whether they derive authority from an appearance of neutrality, objectivity or inevitability or from a more Trumpian appeal to alternative facts that dispense with empirical evidence. In a world where lawmakers still appeal to common sense to promote regressive policies, critique remains an important tool for anyone seeking to move past the status quo.
This is because critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility and recognize that, while facts might be created, not all facts are created equal.
In other words, there really are such things as "alternative facts." Wait–I thought Casey was supposed to be criticizing Trump, not embracing him! He sounds like one confused deconstructivist to me.
That's because Trump stole all our nice relativistic ideas. So unfair.