Postmodernism after 9/11. (Religion & Philosophy)

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After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, some cultural commentators suggested that the attacks might at least do some salutary collateral damage to the doctrine of postmodernism. That voguish academic outlook's disdain for universal abstractions such as justice, its denial that any objective warrant exists for moral judgment or truth, suddenly appeared terribly hollow. "This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective," columnist Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 22, 2001). "And even mild relativism seems troubling in contrast."

Postmodernist superstar Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been eager to take up the challenge, speaking out in an assortment of venues: the Times op-ed page (Oct. 15, 2001), Harper's Magazine (July 2002), and The Responsive Community (Summer 2002), where he is the main participant in a symposium that asks, "Can Postmodernists Condemn Terrorism?"

Though he deems the word terrorism "unhelpful," Fish answers that question in the affirmative. The Fishian postmodernist--who may or may not be typical of the breed--appears like nothing so much as the quintessential Humphrey Bogart character: a cynic on the outside, impatient with high-sounding abstractions and causes, and an idealist underneath, ready in the actual event to do battle for truth and justice. "I in fact do" support the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Fish avows.

It turns out that there are universals, after all, according to this prominent postmodernist. "I am not saying that there are no universal values or no truths independent of particular perspectives. I affirm both." It's just that they can't be independently proved to everyone's satisfaction, Fish explains. So the postmodernist must fall back on is own convictions, about which, by definition, he can hardly be a relativist.

"The basis for condemning what was done on September 11 is not some abstract vocabulary of justice, truth, and virtue--attributes claimed by everyone, including our enemies, and disdained by no one--but the historical reality of the way of life, our way of life, that was the target of a massive assault."

Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, one of the dozen participants in the Responsive Community symposium, hails Fish's postmodernist as "a mature, imaginative, and open-minded individual. …