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449. Conflict (IX)

Contemporary conservatives will often say: “We need to protect the Enlightenment legacy, rational scientific investigation and objective truth, from postmodern relativists—people who think there is such a thing as ‘indigenous ways of knowing’ or some such nonsense’.” I think this view was best expressed by Allan Bloom—although it was probably a general sentiment that was in the air.

Here is the central problem with this assertion: the scientific method is itself relativist. Bloom himself notes this in The Closing of the American Mind. The chemists do not say that gold has more interest for experimental investigation because people value it more than coal—both symbolically and economically; no, in science coal is as good as gold; or, to be precise, coal and gold are neither “good” nor “bad”—these are just substances to be experimentally probed. Bloom thought, in part, that his students had become relativists—would say one culture is as good as another—because value-free investigation dominated the university.

An anthropologist who turns up at an uncontacted South American tribe—we will call them “the Yamato”—would not say, “Wow. What a shit-hole. You guys don’t even know the laws of Newton and you think the world was formed when the Great Firebird dropped the Sun in the dark pool. Let me explain, objectively, what really happened…”. No, the anthropologist listens to the myth and records it: “The Yamato mythology holds that the universe began when the Great Firebird dropped the Sun in the dark pool. This myth is characteristic of local myths 1009b, 1009c, 1009d—and even, as an outlier, 1089f. This indicates kinship ties between these groups, though geographically distant…”. So if you condemn “relativism” you are against the scientific method. Bloom’s complaint was, in part, that his students were all “junior anthropologists” who just compared one culture to another without prejudice. Really, there is nothing more scientific than relativism.

The Red Indian ghostdancer who wears his “bulletproof” magic vest to confront the US Cavalry has his truth; his shamanism is true at its own level, insofar as it changes his consciousness—the white man also has his magic, his juju, and it turns out his myth is stronger; the bullet is stronger than the ghost dance—though both are true in their own ways. Per Nietzsche, we create myths to navigate reality and enhance our power of action; reality is too complicated to be summed up by one myth—the scientific myth is somewhat unreal because it cannot, by definition, include the subjective or irrational. Mythologies clash and some win out over others: Marxism is a popular, though unreal, myth that entrances millions—although it has little survival value and always eventually collapses.

If the conservatives really want to do away with relativism they will have to do away with science and technology in the universities; and people who protest “left-wing postmodern relativism” as a threat to science are incoherent and contradictory: science is relativistic and value free. The confusion arises because Bloom misdiagnosed what the left is; he thought the left is “culture”—poetic subjective expression. So General Lee and Michel Foucault were, though they would be surprised to hear it, on the same side; both defended embodied racial or poetic cultures—and, as with many men in the antebellum South, Foucault also knew a lot about whips and chains.

Against the cultural left (Marcuse and company) and right (Confederates and “Nazis”), Bloom presented a putative “centre” that supposedly embodied objective truth and reason; and this was to be found in “the Enlightenment” and “liberty and equality”; except this putative centre is unembodied—unreal, without ties to race and religion—and also on the left: it argues that an increase in equality is a good thing. Hence Anglo conservatives who bang on about the “postmodern leftist” threat are themselves leftists, they just pursue equality in another dimension—and, further, insofar as they object to “relativism” that threatens “objective science based on Enlightenment thought” they are contradictory and incoherent.


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