26 December 2011

Language and Fact

I snidely defined post-modernism thusly on my blog once before:

A philosophy in which the self is the source, interpreter and purveyor of all and in which nothing can be weighed against anything else, for nothing is accorded weight.

But to be a little more fair and to put a broader stroke on it, I should explain that the main aspects of post-modernism have to do with social constructs and language; post-modernism, as a theory, emphasizes the notion that most things which we deem to be fact are, instead, mere walls that we construct around ourselves, which we then proceed to perpetuate. (Hence the obsession with deconstruction). Post-modernism is far more concerned with the idea of everything being merely ideational, rather than any concrete desire to explore why “society” advocates certain behaviors and derides others, and whether indeed there is more to it than construct.

Example? Well here’s a rough attempt. (ahem).

Gender as a construct: A Post-modernist Tale

Once upon a time was born a human being with certain anatomical parts denoting what is linguistically referred to as female. Language is a human invention therefore its applications are malleable. Due to having received these particular anatomical features via the vagaries of genetic science, this person grew up in an environment in which it was anticipated that they would dress and behave in ways societally acceptable for said features. One day, shortly after the time in which biological agents act upon the body in a sexually maturing manner, this human being decided to adhere to behaviors, mannerisms, and sexual activities associated with that which is linguistically referred to as male. Henceforth this person chose to use the pronoun “he” instead of “she”, thereby adjusting the language with which they preferred to be described. Despite having to undergo many advanced scientific procedures to modify the once-healthy body, and to take hormones modifying the inherent biological agents and the inability to perform any of the functions of that which is referred to as the “male”, the protagonist of this story followed feelings and preferences, and this is very natural. But “natural” is not a value judgment. No. That is not permitted. Value judgments are against the mandate of post-modernism.

Oh. And the person lived indistinctly ever after, manipulating language to suit the flux of thought, feeling and perceived morality.

Okay. Yes. I have a tendency to poke fun and/or attack post-modernism. This for the two following reasons:

1.       My own tendency towards moral ambiguity keeps me well and full aware of where post-modernism actually and logically leads. I know what sort of person I would be without objective truth and this keeps me on my toes about philosophies that would enable all the very worst in my blood to go giddily, viciously wild.

2.       Post-modernism irritates the ever-loving daylights out of me. It is self-eating. It cannot walk for it has swallowed its own legs. It is so fascinated with itself that it—while claiming to see through all the constructs—sees nothing but its own self. It is the quintessential self-centered, self-justifying creature and a well-spring of untrustworthy tautologies.

I found this cartoon (linked to the only source I could find) and I think it handles post-modernism pretty well:

Per usual, C.S. Lewis pointed this out some sixty years ago when what is now called ‘post-modernism’ had not yet lost its baby-teeth:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is of no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

And what does this all come to?

My sister Ronit, among other things. She is a linguist. I am also a linguist (sort of) but I’m what I call a street linguist and she’s a proper one who understands things like…grammar, syntax and structure. It is her job to understand that which is applicable across languages, not just within context.

At first blush my own approach to language would well suit a post-modernist palate. I always say that context is king. And it is. We all know that one word can have a dozen or even many dozens of meanings and only the context can inform us of which one is actually intended. The meaning of the word is influenced by the topic, by inflection, by the speaker and who knows how many other factors that we scarce know to take into account. That is why text-speak is so inane; it lacks a huge number of context-qualifiers. That is also why letter-writing is an art; it’s the ability to infuse the words with the appropriate nuance and sentiment, honing the meaning down to a fine point while not having access to all the traditional tools (voice, expression, gesture).

But while context may be king, post-modernism would have it be a tyrant. One ought not to let context run amok. Context is the medium of communication, not the communiqué itself! Moreover, the truer a thing is, the higher it rises above context.

I am no grammarian, so my sister can speak on the rules and regulations of language to a degree that I can barely understand. This knowledge of the inherent structures that make up languages, both broadly and specifically, is what enables her to do with language things that I—in my context-soaked methods—cannot do; she analyzes them and understands them in and out of contexts; she can approach the language whole, or dissect it into parts.

Language is not as wispy and elusive as some would have us think. It is not as inextricable from its locale as it often seems. If handled with wisdom and care, meaning can survive translation with a healthy heart-beat and live well.

If we make the mistake of chalking everything up to context, we might be astonished (though we really shouldn’t be) at the many horrors that it justifies for itself, and at the many semantic and linguistic games we’ll find ourselves caught up in so as to never have to adhere to something higher or greater than the old adage that ‘perception is reality’. Because, if that’s the case, then all is in the eye of the beholder, and if the eyes are bad, how dark the light within (Matthew 6:23).


  1. I laughed, I cried, it moved me Jayme.

    No, really I did enjoy this article, it got me laughing and I read the whole thing out loud to my housemate, especially the abstract description of gender-confusion, and the cartoon...which was hysterical..."you didn't go to college did you?".
    Thank you!! I feel like this is a wonderful Christmas gift to me from you, thanks!

  2. Very nice. I need to go finish reading "Abolition of Man" now. C.S. Lewis has an excellent way of putting these concepts into words that I really enjoy. The postmodernist shell game does indeed only go so far.

    Also, "lived indistinctly ever after" made me laugh - well-put.

  3. Glad to hear you liked it! Yeah, I just recently re-read Abolition of Man, and it really got me going. I love that book.

  4. That last comment was at "Burst" (Travis, I'm guessing?)

    This one at Ronit: I must confess that this is how this post came about.

    "Mom. I'm going to write another post...any suggestions?"

    "Dedicate it to Shannon (Ronit) for Christmas"

    And then I thought I would write about language and it just so happened that I'd so very recently re-read abolition of man, and then I though of your language-method as a refutation of postmodernism through linguistics!!

    Merry Christmas!

    (P.S. Your comment came in as spam...it's never done that before. I almost missed it! I'll have to be double-sure to check it in the future)