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October 2, 2006 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Universal Truths

A couple of years back, I had a smallish party at my flat with some leftist political friends of mine. One of the people there was this first year media studies student who had been hanging around with us socialist types during the anti-Iraq war protests. Over a few glasses of whatever it was (probably cask wine) we started debating political ideas and this first year student started arguing against the idea of there being universal truth. Apparently the idea of something being objective reality was a modernist concept, authoritarian and conservative. The argument went along for a while until someone asked her what would happen if she stood in front of a truck moving at 100km. It’s the sort of thing you’d think most people would have worked out at the age of five. It’s always stuck in my mind that the post modernist/post structuralist arguments that many still espouse throughout the university can be so easily discredited. But at the same time many of our esteemed lectures and educators, at this and similar institutions, still argue and teach theories which in effect argue that you can stand in front of a moving truck and not be hit.

So why does post-modernism/poststructuralism get any credibility at all? We look back at early proponents such as Michel Foucault who challenged the conservative dichotomy for human sexuality. This conservative dichotomy argued that heterosexuality is the norm and all other forms of sexuality were abnormal if not perverse. Foucault argued that sexuality was socially constructed and that normalising certain types of sexuality meant demonising or ostracising other types. Moving the debate in this direction in the 1970s and 80s was a positive step and helped people view sexuality in a more open and inclusive light. And in many ways this is the positive side of post-modernist arguments: they do force people to think outside the square and investigate things they haven’t thought of or consider utterly out of bounds for serious thought. And of course this sort of critical thinking is what a university should be encouraging and expecting of all its students so on this level its understandable how it plays such a large role in aspects of university study.

But this is limited…because of the truck. To view all situations and particularly all political questions through the lens of post-modernism can led people up and along cul-de-sacs and well off the path they thought they were on. An example of this was in the 1980s when the post-modernist ideology (for want of a better description of the concept) was arguably at its height. This was the decade where due to the end of the post-war boom the decline in business profit created the conditions for the neoliberal economic push known in Aotearoa as ‘Rogernomics’. A post-structuralist critique of something so clearly driven by a structural issue is going to have serious limitations. At a time when poverty rose considerably, students fees shot up and the gap between rich and poor rose, what use was being post-modern? If someone is poor, if kids are going to school without lunch, if students are forced to use foodbanks, having debates about whether there is an objective truth is pretty irreverent. For the people using foodbanks or going without, poverty is an objective truth. It’s not just that people view it that way, but that it actually is for a certain section of the population.

Post-modernism hasn’t really ever materialised in any sort of political movement or party. Instead it has played an increased role in thought, at a time when academia has become increasingly divorced from practical political debates and struggles. A combination of the increased competition and workloads within the university environment and the increased influence of post-modernism, have been two of the main drivers behind this move away from practical societal issues. I find that students wanting to get into politics at university or just generally questioning these forces are often still taken by these post-structuralist ideas. Unfortunately, whilst at first they can open people up to greater critical thinking, they also take people in a direction that achieves little and wastes time and energy. Poverty is an objective reality, as is the student loans scheme, student fees and many other realities we face in our society. We do need to look at this critically and know that the current reality can be changed and current situations can be altered. But they won’t be altered by people not believing that these concrete, objective situations, do exist in the first place.

The election. At the time of writing this I don’t know the result of the election and won’t know till Monday night. I do know that voter turnout within the first 48 hours was higher than the elections at the end of 2005. I know of people who have voted from as far away as London (a former VUWSA president in fact). I also know a number of people who keep putting it off (so if you’re reading this on Monday before 4:30pm and you’ve not voted go check your student email).


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  1. Nick Kelly says:

    1. postmodernism is not the same as poststructuralism.

    I basically talking about the general move away from materialist analysis

    2. Foucault is not postmodern

    But clearly forms the basis for much of those ideas.

    3. what is the objective definition of poverty, pray tell?

    This to me is the problem with these sorts of academic discussions. We’ll quickly get into a big debate about the *exact definition of poverty*. The discussion soon becomes divorced from the fact that there are people going without food, living in makeshift accomodition and suffering and dying from diseases that are curable.

    4. is poverty still an objective truth if you can go on the dole and then pay for your groceries?

    It is an objective fact that there is an unemployment benefit.

    5. so the whole point of university is not to learn/expand your mind? but instead it should be to solve practical problems like “poverty”?

    Of course the point of university is to expand people’s minds and teach people to question. But its pretty clear that Universities also do need to be places where actual practical issues are discussed, and moreover that uni research work actually contributes in a positive way to society.

    6. how can postmodernism which doesn’t believe in universal truths then be used to create policy?

    Well exactly.

    7. are you just trying to justify your Marxist beliefs (which has splintered off into a neo-Gramscian or post-structural model anyway, because Marx’s theories are flawed)?

    I’m defending materialism. But also trying to challenge what has been quite a dominant set of beliefs within academia over the last couple of decades.
    Gramsci was a dialectical materialist, and his works have been badly butchered over the last few years.

    8. can you please stop misusing academic theory?

    How is pointing out the limitations of certain theories “misusing” it.

  2. bran says:

    you’ll find a lot of academics don’ t believe in the idea of postmodernism either. arguably postmodernism is just another form of modernism – it’s an overarching theory isn’t it? but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught, which seems to be what you are arguing Nick. Also, to say Foucault is responsible for postmodernism is like saying Marx is responsible for the way Stalin acted.

  3. Nick Kelly says:

    I’m certainly not claiming it shouldn’t be taught, that would just be an attacl on academic freedom. And certainly many academics don’t support post modernism.
    What I am arguing is that there are weaknesses with these ideas and people should be aware of them.

    Foucault certainly fed into Post Modernism and it is valid to point it out. It would be difficult to give any serious assessment of the Soviet Union without measuring it against the works of Marx and Engels.

  4. bran says:

    fair enough, i’m just not seeing how an attack on postmodernism – which trust me, is attacked in most arts papers anyway, almost making an attack rather redundant – does much to seriously question ideas of poverty and student loans. the academics’ job is to enquire/grapple, not to answer anyway. as for arguing about objective truths, i’m pretty sure we could just end up arguing past one another (i don’t think there is a definition of poverty, wealth etc.) yet probably end up saying the same thing

    Foucault also disliked the term postmodernism

  5. Denny Crane says:

    This to me sounds like stupid from all angles. The funny thing about the fact that most academics do not support postmodernism is that I have encountered very few academics at this university who have a well-grounded conceptual understanding of postmodernism.

    “It’s always stuck in my mind that the post modernist/post structuralist arguments that many still espouse throughout the university can be so easily discredited.”
    – Ha ok, so some first year media kid once got confused and lost an irrelevant debate about a truck and this means postmodernism “can be so easily discredited”. I have seen left wing materialists lose more humiliating defeats and this does not prove (in my mind) that dialectical materialism is flawed.

    “3. what is the objective definition of poverty, pray tell?”
    – Yeah why don’t you answer this this is a good question.

    “Also, to say Foucault is responsible for postmodernism is like saying Marx is responsible for the way Stalin acted. ”
    – Don’t quit your day job to go on making analogies Brannavan. Foucault is a seminal deconstructionist whose works informed postmodernism but comparing postmodernism with all the people Stalin killed is a wee bit dramatic.

    I would like somebody to decide what specific interpretation of postmodernism we are actually arguing.

  6. bran says:

    well Marx informed Stalin – he was his justification. sure, i was being a bit over-the-top (but isn’t that adding a moral judgment onto it…), but hey, i’m just chucking a few ideas out there (though if there was a job creating analogies i wouldn’t send my cv in).

    i presume we’re talking about postmodernism as a philosophical evolution from/reaction to modernism as a way of describing the world.

  7. Nick says:

    Hey Kelly, what happens if you get hit by a truck?

    Please explain.

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