Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Postmodern Paradox and The Black Swan

If understand it correctly, a standard argument goes like: Postmodernism declares that “nothing is absolute,” but since that statement constitutes an absolute, postmodernism is self-contradictory and therefore absurd. Postmodernism has therefore nothing to offer. I don’t actually think that’s what “postmodernism” says—as I read contemporary authors, they state in a much more limited way, that they simply can’t find any absolute statements that hold up and that the path to certainty is strewn with road-kill. So I strain out a slightly different insight: there is a latent inconsistency, the Postmodern Paradox, in our contemporary philosophical and cultural climate. We want a grand narrative, but distrust it. So our Big Story is that there is none.

You see, I’m as distrustful of totalizing concepts as the next guy. I can sniff them out even when the author protests against them. So what I take up here—with Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan to my right—is that his contention that we by nature create huge structures in order to assert certainty and predictability in a highly improbable world. He calls this tendency (among other things): PLATONICITY, “our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined ‘forms,’ whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias… [etc.].” But we don’t live in the world of the Forms. (Actually Plato didn’t think we did either.) Taleb wants to open us to the possibility of the Black Swan, to events and realities we could never predict, but that constitute what is most definitive for our lives and our world. Who could have seen the stock market crash of 1987 or the planes of 9-11? In other words, Black Swans rule, in a world that can only countenance boring, predictable white swans.

So I come to the Postmodern Paradox: No sooner does a thinker like Taleb want to emphasize the fragmentary, the irrational, the postmodern—no sooner does he evoke an incredulity toward metanarratives—than some new meta-structure comes around the back door. The Black Swan constitutes his totalizing structure. (The definition is in the post below.) Taleb wants to eschew the certainty that we derive from perfect, platonic concepts. And yet, it comes around that famous one-sided Mobius strip. In an odd way, it seems, asserting unpredictability (against the common, pedestrian desire for the known and the repeated) offers Taleb some level of mastery over the world. And that, to be sure, is a paradox.


John said...

at the risk of sounding like an idiot, i feel we live in a post postmodern era.

postmodernism was an effort to throw of the shackles of deterministic modernism, to strip modernism of its accomplishments.

yet postmodernism did not really have a return of its own. in years past, the cultural waves of postmodernism shocked and disrupted. now they merely entertain. my music was a foreign language to my parents; my daughter and i listen to the same music. karl rove raps at the national press dinner, and sheryl crow writes for the huffington post.

we're now in an era of trying to create structure around postmodern culture. we organize and consume the products of postmodernism like sampling different brands of cereal.

GCootsona said...

I think you're essentially (and I use that word ironically) correct about postmodernism: it's too often a word in search of a definition. Primarily it's still saddled with "post" meaning simply "after."