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By Nathan Bierma


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GETTING REAL

What comes after postmodernism? Post-postmodernism? What could follow a movement that sought to dismantle traditional means and bodies of knowledge? One candidate is critical realism, says critic and poet Roger Caldwell in Philosophy Now magazine.

Two editors of a recent collection, After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism, contend that critical realism has already arrived, as Caldwell reports. They deny that postmodernism has created a "general epistemological crisis." They know, Caldwell says, that "if there are no inherent meanings in the text it is not properly a text at all but indistinguishable from an arbitrary jumble of words." Critical realism "restores us to reality. We cannot manage without a concept of truth." Its credo affirms "a pre-existing external reality," while being "cautious about claims to objective reality, alert to ideological distortions, and aware that the world is a messier, more complicated place than the accounts of physicists would suggest." But Caldwell emphasizes: "This does not mean that such claims [to objective reality] cannot plausibly be made."

But as Caldwell points out, some of the contributors to After Postmodernism sound awfully postmodern themselves, with their jargon about "a socio-historical situating of knowledge." They have, he says, "changed the label but not the brew." He leaves these questions unaddressed: How does critical realism claim to be a definite methodology, and not just a slightly-more-cautious resumption of scientific inquiry? Is postmodernism wrong simply because it can be construed as epistemic chaos? And how can it be that, as Caldwell says, "a plurality of ways of looking does not translate into a plurality of ways of knowing"? A way of looking is a way of knowing.

The looking is the important part anyway, says Esther Lightcap Meek in an intriguing new book called Longing To Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People. The desire to elude the peculiarities of individual knowledge is an unnatural one forced upon us by the Enlightenment, writes Meek. "The personal human effort [is not] the barrier that prevents us from knowing, but [rather] the situatedness in the world that is just our strategic access to it. We don't need a beachhead; we already are one." Meanwhile, the problem with postmodernism's distrust of objective orientation for our epistemic pursuits is that it denies our "longing to engage the real." The reader comes away convinced that scientific and skeptical camps alike must seek a new description of—and goal for—our relationship with truth: in Meek's words, "contact, not correspondence; confidence, not certainty."

Related:

Earlier in this weblog:

PLACES & CULTURE

From the Washington Post:

ZAYAD, Iraq — A dozen years after Saddam Hussein ordered the vast marshes of southeastern Iraq drained, transforming idyllic wetlands into a barren moonscape to eliminate a hiding place for Shiite Muslim political opponents, Iraqi engineers have turned on the spigot again. The flow is not what it once was—new dams have weakened the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that feed the marshes—but the impact has been profound. As the blanket of water gradually expands, it is quickly nourishing plants, animals and a way of life for Marsh Arabs that Hussein had tried so assiduously to extinguish. In Zayad, a tiny hamlet about 210 miles southeast of Baghdad that was one of the first places to be flooded, residents have rushed to reclaim their traditions. Kerkush drove to the port city of Basra to buy a wooden boat known as a mashoof. His children assembled fish nets. Other relatives scoped out locations to build a house of reeds. The marsh has once again assumed its omnipresent role in the village. Full story

PHILADELPHIA—The Liberty Bell made its rare outdoor appearance [last month] to move down the block from its old, somewhat cramped pavilion to the new $12.9 million Liberty Bell Center. The last time the bell was outside was on its move from Independence Hall to the pavilion on the rainy New Year's night of Jan. 1, 1976. Few weathered the storm to see that move, so the National Park Service, as if dishing up the brilliant, warm fall day, reveled in making a big ceremony out of this move. … The pavilion that held the Liberty Bell for 27 years was a bit of unloved Americana in the city. A low-slung, boxy, oblong glass building plunked in the middle of an often ill-landscaped block just north of Independence Hall, it was criticized mostly for minimizing the grandeur of the Liberty Bell. … The new Liberty Bell Center sits southwest of the old pavilion but is about twice its size, with an interpretive area explaining the bell's history and a large window behind where the bell now hangs that almost projects it into Independence Hall. Full story

SCRAPBOOK

Recent cartoons in the New Yorker:

- Panhandler to well-dressed passerby: "Don't you remember me? During the blackout we slept on the same sidewalk."

- Customer to cell phone retailer: "Do you have a phone that doesn't do much?"

- Sign in front yard: "For sale by neighbor."

- Executive to others in board room: "I'm making this decision on principle, just to see how it feels."

- Children around a campfire: "Someday, when we're old, we're going to embellish this."

&bull Previous Scrapbook: Harper's Index

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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