Is Post Modernism a Cynical Reaction to Shattered Dreams?

Post-Modernism takes as axiomatic the death of the grand narrative. Prior to the 20th century, the story goes, humans lived under “grand narratives” about God, justice, truth, morality, power structures, nature, assurances about eventual rightness, and so forth.  At the start of the 21st century, few[er] people in the Western world take governments, economies, corporate leaders, monetary systems, treaties, political speeches, religious belief, natural law, etc. seriously or literally. I wonder: is PoMo an attempt to describe how Western Civilization moved from the former to the latter?

PoMo is often characterized as a radical rejection of the fundamentals of metaphysics and epistemology, to the point of a total disengagement from the reality of the chairs in which we sit. Thus understood, it is rightly mocked as both pretentious and worthless. However, it may be that this school of thought is mean to describe a loss of faith in power and authority and a rejection of social institutions. The more extreme, hard PoMo might be about not thinking that the objects in a room are “real,” either because words have no meaning or objects are constructs of our minds; the softer approach is to see PoMo as asserting that there is no “justice” in a law because a legislative (or judicial, or executive) body may be subject to error or corruption (from selfishness, lobbying, or outright bribery and graft), or that there is no settled “truth” in a society which learns through sources which often conflict. It is undoubtly easier to swallow that the “objects” which may not be “real” are the objects of our social world, not of our physical world. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but it’s hard to keep an analysis of Post Modernism down to approx. 500 words.)

Baseball might be my least favorite sport (at least cricket has funny Anglophonic accents), but there’s a useful analogy to tie together legal realism and this “soft PoMo” idea in the act of a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. One umpire, when asked about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, boldly asserted, “They ain’t nothin’ til I calls ‘em.” Some schools of legal theory feel there is a fact about laws and justice, and it is the work of judges and lawyers to find that fact—just as scientists experiment on objects to find their mass, density, specific heat, and other qualities. Through the 20th century, a competing school of thought posited that there was no fact about law (or maybe even Justice, abstractly), and so there was no such science-like experimentation to be done. On this view, the law is like calling balls and strikes: and the law is nothing until it has been judged (and even then, the judgment may be judged).

This view of PoMo makes the movement sound more disaffected and bitter than radical and delusional. Perhaps the great manifesto of this view is President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. (text: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/carter-crisis/ )His description of a loss of hope and trust in government, both in policies and persons, (and I would extend that to at least news media), could be read as a eulogy (or the Last Rites?) for thee grand narratives of authority, justice, and progress.

So, what does this mean for IP law, specifically? For one thing, it bears on whether patents and copyrights are matters of doing just and right things for inventors and authors, or whether they are merely functional tools to serve consumers. Further along this line, accepting PoMo may make it easier to accept media piracy because there is (on this view) no absolute truth about the wrongfulness of copyright violation. But it might shed light on why we might be inclined to reject such absolute truths: the story of America in the 20th century might be the story of 4 generations learning not to trust authority figures and not to believe in the ideals and morals born under the Grand Narratives of ages past.

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