The Grammar of the World

Periodicity, “Postmodernism”, and the Excesses of the New Realism

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Ce qui est n’est pas clos

It remains common, in certain know-nothing rivulets of our ever-flowing River of Discourse, to blame the vague spectre of “postmodernism” for the rise of whatever it is one dislikes in contemporary culture. Yet it does not take much effort to see that the great majority of our leading “idea influencers” long ago left any semblance of free playful narrativity behind, and moved on to a new species of hyper-realism about the world and humanity’s place in it.

This much was crystal clear, for example, when in 2018 the comp-lit kids came for the head of their erstwhile mentor Avital Ronell, who had hoped to pass off her conduct towards poor Nimrod as just so much “camp”. Did she sexually harass him or didn’t she? — this is all the angry grad students cared to know. Lacking any real career prospects of their own in the newly precaritized academic job market, they set their sites instead on the aging mandarin who still liked to imagine of herself that she was “transgressing” against something other than common decency, that in the end her tenured “play” looked to those who would never have a professional play-pen of their own any different from Chrissy Teigen’s ill-conceived tweets recounting the practical jokes she liked to play on her maid.

The shift in fact began much earlier than this. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Bruno Latour for example began to suspect the intellectual fashion to which he himself had contributed so much was at least in part responsible for creating a global environment in which “we each have our own truths”. This realization came for him when, returning to his native village in Bourgogne and speaking with the common people who work the Latour family vineyards, he learned that, for a good number of them, “their own truths” told them it was “the Jews” who brought down the Twin Towers. Other science-studies luminaries too, who had previously delighted in stoking the idea that science is but a discourse alongside others, came to realize that they shared at least some responsibility for a wide array of suspicious attempts to join the narrativity train, to spin the past according to taste, such as the Creation Science Museum of Petersburg, Kentucky, or the crypto-creationist Discovery Institute, both of which were, if run by reactionaries, nevertheless effective illustrations of the usefulness of postmodernism.

The reckoning with what “theory” had wrought was broad and various. Even the Catholic postmodernist philosopher Jean-Luc Marion felt compelled, in the preface to a later edition of his 1982 apophatic summa, God Without Being, to reply to critics who worried that he was tiptoeing right up to the brink of atheism. Don’t worry, he reassured them, notwithstanding the title of this book, God is. The philosopher could have doubled down and insisted that his own postmodernism was not some slapdash twentieth-century novelty, but indeed connected back up with the most ancient and venerable negative-theology tradition of the Church Fathers and saints. And yet a shift was already in the air (his updated preface dates from the mid-1990s): it’s time to start believing in stuff again, to say so outright, to commit existentially.

I confess I somewhat regret this shift, as I feel there is still an important role for responsible defenses of, let us say generically, antirealism, or, more specifically, mid-nineties-style Hackingian-Foucauldian historical ontology. I’m aware that this is also the moment when my own philosophical commitments began to take shape, and that I am to some extent stuck in that moment, just as when I listen to Stereolab’s 1997 Dots and Loops, and my reptile brain thinks dimly: this is my kind of stuff. But still, every trend deserves its eventual rehash, and as a quasi-Foucauldian I am not terribly discomfited by the thought that philosophical commitments are in the end nothing but trends. So pull up some Stereolab on Spotify (if that helps set the mood) and let’s get started.

Crisper realism

The shift I am attempting to identify has much to do with the recent history of science. It was, notably, in 2003 that the Human Genome Project was declared “complete”, and the belief quickly settled in that we now have an exhaustive “map” of the elementary building blocks of human beings. I recall at the time there were numerous headlines in the popular press announcing that “human nature has been revealed” — the philosophers can now call it quits in their millennia-long project of self-reflection, the idea was, as it turns out we are but sequences of adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. In the years following, new technologies were developed, notably CRISPR, that could manipulate these sequences according to human desire.

The prevailing cultural sensibility in recent years is what I have come to think of as “CRISPR realism” — it is, literally, “crisper”, in the sense that the baseline understanding of things is at a much higher resolution than would have been expected of non-experts in past generations, and it is “CRISPR”, in the sense that this expectation rides in the wake of new technologies and innovations enabling us to understand and to manipulate reality at a much more fine-grained level than ever before.

Consider gender. Again here, know-nothing anti-woke personalities continue to imagine that recent developments in the way we talk about this fraught subject are but another ramification of “postmodernism”. But in fact when you encounter a “he/himmer” or a “they/themmer” in your social-media feed today, you are unlikely to see any unreconstructed nineties-style Butlerite performance-studies mantras from that person, and by contrast you are much more likely to be confronted with an interminable thread displaying, say, intricate knowledge of a vast array of congenital intersex conditions. This is supposed to convince you that the supposed sexual dimorphism in our species is just the surface of a vastly more complex biological reality. What it is definitely not supposed to do is to announce a willful departure from reality. It is just as realist in its way as the position defended by those who will remind us that God made Adam and Eve, it’s just that the cast of characters is considerably longer.

The enumeration of characters is generally underlain by an implicit essentialism: everything we enumerate is on the list, as it were, of the ingredients of the universe; nothing is an artifact of our own historically embedded enumerative and classificatory endeavors, and to suggest otherwise is to “deny the existence” of something that matters politically to some group of people or other, or indeed to deny the existence of a group of people themselves — not just their existence under the precise classificatory system they have adopted, but their existence tout court.

Scientific literacy, I acknowledge, is an unqualified good, both for society and for the individual who seeks it out. New tools for enhancing the resolution of our observations boost our doxastic confidence, and reduce the general air of skepticism characteristic of the postmodernism of the previous century. In the present century, no fact seems off-limits, and this is indeed exciting.

There are however, as we must evidently still remind ourselves, lingering questions about the relationship between facts and values. The mapping of the genome does not settle the question of “human nature”, and it is not at all clear that the rise of CRISPR realism as the dominant epistēmē of our era is helping society to become one iota more just. On the contrary, to fail to recognize the complex ways in which enumeration and classification conspire to produce the objects of their study is to open the door to a dogmatic realism that, while pretending to defend the marginalized, the voiceless, and the queer, in fact has as its deepest raison d’être the suppression of difference.

Chiroptera epistemology and hydrometaphysics

For a telling, if anodyne, example of the shift I am attempting to identify, consider that in recent years there has been at least a handful of articles with titles offering up variations on the affirmative sentence, “What It’s Like to Be a Bat” — replying, obviously, to Thomas Nagel’s classic aporetic argument in his interrogatively titled 1974 article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel had supposed that the echolocative sensory apparatus of Chiroptera is simply too different from our own for us ever to be able to arrive at an accurate idea of the character of a bat’s qualitative experience. And yet in 2008 the neurobiologist Cynthia Moss reported the results of her research on the brain states of bats that are correlated with their vocalizations. In 2017 the question of what it is like to be a bat was again answered by an approach using integrated information theory. And so on.

To cite another telling example, in the previous century to suggest that elephants mourn their dead was to court ridicule by other scientists on the grounds of reckless “anthropomorphism”. Today the science of animal emotion is a well-respected and productive field, and this is in large part because we know better now how to get in there and have a look at what is going on, hormonally and neurologically, and we simply find no good reason, when we look inside, to suppose that this is substantially different from what is going on inside of us.

As with bats, so with water. When Hilary Putnam devised the famous “Twin Earth” thought experiment in his 1973 paper, “Meaning and Reference”, imagining a planet identical to ours, except that the “water” is not molecularly H2O, but rather “XYZ”, he was taking for granted that the composition of the terrestrial substance is an uncontroversial matter. Already in the 1996 anthology of responses to Putnam’s work, The Twin Earth Chronicles —again perhaps portending the coming shift to CRISPR realism— more than one contributor noted that what we call “water” is more correctly known as “light water”, or “deuterium-depleted water”, while many other isotopic combinations yield up substances with chemical properties close enough to those of the stuff that comes out of our tap to be called by the same name, but that are not H20. Heavy water, or deuterium oxide, in particular, is 2H20, though this is really just the tip of the iceberg. We could in fact produce, if we wished, a very long list of more exotic and lengthier molecular compounds recognizable as water.

In light of all this, in 2003 Michael Weisberg circulated a chemically well-informed paper called “Water Is Not H20”; in 2006, again, Holly VandeWall published, “Why Water Is Not H2O, and Other Critiques of Essentialist Ontology from the Philosophy of Chemistry”; and in 2012 Hasok Chang, generously restating the matter as a question, publishes his definitive contribution to the field of hydrometaphysics, Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism, and Pluralism. His answer, in short, was: “Well, it’s complicated.”

Weisberg rightly notes that it is not just molecular compounds, but also the elements themselves, that are subject to a wide array of isotopic variation, depending on the number of neutrons in the atoms in a given set. Thus deuterium and tritium are both isotopes of hydrogen, because both have one proton and one electron, but deuterium has one neutron while tritium has two. We can skip the details, but the important thing to note here is that these are different kinds of hydrogen, which do not ordinarily get included on the periodic table of elements as being among the basic building blocks of the world. By contrast, higher-numbered synthetic elements, which often only exist for a few hundred microseconds under highly artificial laboratory conditions, nevertheless do make it onto the list of ingredients of the universe.

But what makes us think the periodic table of elements constitutes such a list? I might be naive, but over the years I have often pointed my students to this elegant table as a surefire source of paradigmatic examples of “natural kinds”, in John Stuart Mill’s technical sense, which I will not define here, other than to say that they are those things that we may be fairly sure are “really there”, in the world, whether we have picked them out and named them or not. I have typically pointed to chemistry in the context of discussion of the status of biological species, which, I have routinely claimed, are on much less secure ontological footing — mere “screenshots”, I have maintained, of a constantly flowing evolutionary timeline. But if it is true that helium, say, has been a stable item on the list of “things there are” longer than, say, tree frogs or sea snakes, it is not clear that Dmitri Mendeleev’s table itself, or the picture of reality we derive from it, is any more stable a part of reality, any less a product of the modern drive to schematize, than, say, Linnean taxonomy.

Even the classificatory systems we point to as the most secure, I mean, the ones that supposedly enumerate the natural kinds and tell you where they stand in relation to one another, begin to crumble when we look closer into the circumstances of their construction.

Numbers, persons, notes

What I want to talk about, ultimately, is the example of chemistry, in order then to draw some general conclusions about the limitations of our new epistēmē of CRISPR realism. But before we get there I would like to set up the problem with a few initial examples, in some respects more elementary, drawn from grammar and music.

Consider, to begin, the familiar present-tense conjugation of the verb “to love” in Latin:

It may seem that we have exhausted, here, all the ways there are to love: I can love along with other people, or alone; one other person can love alone, or with others, and so on. This six-part scheme of number and person is familiar from many different languages, including English (though in English we don’t often bother to make such charts, since other than the third-person singular we seldom see any inflection). But things start to get a bit messier when we move to German:

Or to Italian:

Italian and German have, in some sense, discovered other ways of specifying who is doing what, and in what combinations, than what Latin had to offer. Now you might reply that whether it is reflected in grammatical inflection or not, politeness surely finds a way to enter into language somehow, and a special pronoun for the second-person formal plural, say, involves no real difference of social ontology. This is a reasonable point, but note: German and Italian, each in their own way, do not simply introduce a new pronoun, but rather they express formality through a strange and impossible fiction: in German, the formal “you” is a plural “they”, but capitalized; in Italian, the formal second-person “you” remains singular, but the verb is conjugated as if it were in the third-person. In German, formality requires you to treat the respected other as a multitude, in Italian it requires you to speak to him or her as if they were not in the room, and you were talking about them with someone else.

There are yet stranger distinctions in other languages —in Romanian for example there are two degrees of second-person formality—, and in most European languages there is at least a memory of the archaic “royal We”, which may be seen as a sort of self-reflexive formal first-person, in which one treats oneself as a plurality insofar as one represents a political collectivity. Some languages include a dual number to express, for example, something that I do together with you (sing.) and with no one else; in Russian the idea of the dual is expressed idiomatically in the formula мы с тобой, literally “we with you (sing.)”. If you find the he/himmers of today a bit, shall we say, redundant, it is useful to bear in mind that after the French Revolution, the National Assembly hosted a “pronoun debate” of its own: many of the more radical wing argued for the immediate abolition of vous for addressing a singular fellow citizen, since it was an unnecessary formality in a nation of equals, and in any case it rested on a metaphysical absurdity, as no individual can in fact be plural. The camp of the tutoyeurs might well have felt moved to put tu/te/ton in their social-media bios if, per impossibile, the French revolutionaries had Twitter.

How many persons are there? How many numbers? On close inspection the ideas of person and number turn out to be much more like gender than we might have expected: they have their primary sense in grammar, but grammar is warped and stretched according to the commitments we come to hold in our social ontology. Nothing about the six-celled Latin grid is natural or exhaustive, even if we tend to think about the different possibilities presented by other languages as variations on the standard model, as so to speak isotopes of the paradigmatic elements. In short, if you want to know how many different ways one may speak of love (for example), in how many different combinations, the world itself is not going to tell you.

Consider next a guitar’s fretboard in standard tuning:

Unlike the table of present-tense conjugations of “to love”, the fretboard exhibits periodicity, that is, the quality of having repeated features at regular intervals. Any rational being could pick up a guitar, without knowing anything about music or about this object’s status as a musical instrument, and could discern with proper attention certain regular features: at the fifth and the tenth frets, we find a solid series of whole notes; the twelth fret repeats the whole notes of the open strings; and so on. As every learner finds out, there is the so-called “CAGED” pattern, which enables you to play the same chords up and down the neck by exploiting certain of its periodic features.

And there are also some frustrating irregularities, which can give the whole arrangement an appearance of haphazardness. For example, to strum the open strings gives you no meaningful chord sound, while you could easily get one if you were to tune three of the strings down one note, from E-A-D-G-B-E to D-G-D-G-B-D, as blues guitarists sometimes do. But what appears “random” eventually reveals itself to be rather a product of optimization, getting the most out of a limited number of possible arrangements of notes. While the origins of this particular arrangement are concealed in the shadows of time, and we do not know whether it emerged gradually by a series of unconscious adjustments or as a result of concrete decisions made by some anonymous guitarist, what is certain is, first of all, that the periodic features of the fretboard are not imagined, in contrast, say, with the ram or the archer in the heavens; and second of all, that this order yields up all music. It is an order that, once understood and mastered, shows itself to be both rational and optimal.

But is it natural? Surely not, most people will say, since it results from the contingent decisions that people made in history; it could have been different — in fact it can be different even know, if we just switch to non-standard tuning, as we are always free to do. Yet it is not impossible to imagine a culture in which one is not free to do so, in which one would be imprisoned, say, or have one’s hands amputated, for disrupting the instrument that mirrors and epitomizes the order of the cosmos itself.

We ourselves suppose that it does not do that, while other periodic schemata, such as Mendeleev’s table, do, even if there is still no legal prohibition on rearranging its squares just for the hell of it. But we make these differing suppositions —that the periodic table reflects the order of reality while the guitar fretboard reflects a series of choices and pure contingencies— because we are, and have been since the era of Mendeleev, mostly materialist naturalists, who believe that the best and most obvious candidates for inclusion on the universe’s list of ingredients are the different kinds of atom with their different atomic structures. We are not, to say the least, some strange sect of neo-Pythagoreans who believe that the order of reality is underlain at its most fundamental level by harmonies, and —why not?— that the modern era’s guitar is the most perfect embodiment of this cosmic harmonic order. We are not, but we could have been.

Things turned out differently, for better or worse. And of course any sane person will accept this historical destiny, in most contexts, rather than dogmatically declaring that some radical alternative ontology is in fact the true one — as the “outsider physicists” incisively studied by Margaret Wertheim do, who, frustrated with the abstruse and inaccessible language of the experts speaking of their “strings” and “branes”, declare instead that the basic elements of the universe are, say, smoke-rings (curiously similar to those one may observe when passing a joint around). But this does not mean that historical investigations revealing the constructedness of any given schema imposed on “reality” must always constitute an affront to decency and sanity. In fact they can themselves be a useful corrective to the dogmatic excesses of realism, not least of our new CRISPR realism. This is particularly clear when we turn our attention to the history of the periodic table of the elements.

The grammar of the world

On first consideration, Mendeleev’s construction appears to provide irrefutable evidence for what, if we were thinking about the arrangement and diversity of living nature, could not but be interpreted as “intelligent design”. Notably, all 118 elements, natural and synthetic, Hydrogen through Oganesson, are built successively, one after the other, by adding a single proton to the nucleus of the previous element. This alone is surprising: that we can get the qualitative diversity of the perceptible properties of elements by such a simple process of addition. But what has the unmistakable appearance of forethought is the way in which these elements arrange themselves into periods, groups, and blocks, with for example, Calcium, the alkaline earth metal of atomic number 20, giving way to Scandium, atomic number 21, in the first “group” or column of so-called transitional metals; and then the same thing repeating itself when Strontium (atomic number 38) gives way to Yttrium (39). From Potassium (19) through Barium (56), it is as if nature knew to restart the alkali metals with the addition of 18 atoms, the same with the transitional metals, and so on (though things get a bit messy with the so-called f-block metals beginning with Lanthanum (57) and ending with Nobelium (102), and these are generally represented outside the largest unit of contiguous elements on the table).

I could go on almost indefinitely, identifying regularities that appear to attest to an overall plan in putting this table together. But one might also go on indefinitely identifying irregularities, not just the “footnote” elements in the f-block, but also for example the “leftover” quality of the p-block category on the right of the table, containing such things as metals, metalloids, and non-metals. While nature may indeed be giving us some basic parameters within which to work, the human beings who undertook to classify the objects of their study within these parameters were free to tinker and adjust until they arrived at something elegant and pleasing. And this is substantially the same situation in which the nameless tuners of countless ancestors to the modern guitar found themselves as well, and of every human being who sets out to structure some sliver of the world for the sake of better knowing it.

I have long been interested in Dmitri Mendeleev as a vivid example of the sort of figure Russian science up into the Soviet period was so good at producing: wide-ranging natural and experimental philosophers, who retain much later than in the West an awareness of the “magical” or conjurational character of laboratory science. My primary research interests lie a century earlier, at the moment when Mikhail Lomonosov returns to Moscow after studying in Halle with Christian Wolff and others, but I have slowly been working through the nineteenth-century chemist’s Collected Works, and have been consistently delighted by his depth and range.

My enthusiasm for Mendeleev was recently deepened when I discovered his biographical and intellectual link to another of my great heroes (to the extent that I have these): the German-Russian Indologist Otto von Böhtlingk. While primarily preoccupied with Sanskrit, von Böhtlingk also managed to find the time to write the very first grammar of the North Siberian Turkic language Sakha, which he published under the title, Über die Sprache der Jakuten (On the Language of the Yakuts) in 1851. Over the course of that same and the following decade, von Böhtlingk and Mendeleev were colleagues in St. Petersburg, served on committees together, and seem to have developed a significant intellectual friendship with one another.

The Russian chemist had been born in 1834 in the Siberian city of Tobolsk, formerly Picek-Tora under the Khanate of Sibir. While his true ethnic ancestry is disputed, Mendeleev consistently identified himself as a descendent of the Siberian Tatars, and thus as a slightly more southerly cousin of the Sakha/Yakuts. We can easily imagine that Mendeleev and von Böhtlingk touched in their conversations on questions arising from comparative Siberian linguistics, and yet it is from von Böhtlingk’s primary field of research that the chemist may have drawn his greatest inspiration. Von Böhtlingk’s work was centrally focused on the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini, who in the fourth century BCE wrote (or rather dictated) a massive compendium of rules for the phonology and morphology of Sanskrit called the Aṣṭādhyāyī or the Book of Eight Chapters, consisting of almost 4,000 sutras that together more or less exhaustively enumerate the rules of Sanskrit. Pāṇini is considered the first formal grammarian in history, and from the nineteenth century has been of immeasurable importance for the development of structural linguistics, computer science, and other disciplines.

The object of Pāṇini’s investigation, it is important to understand, is not for him “a” language, but rather Sanskrit, the language that expresses the true, divine, and rational order of reality. Understood in this way, to write the grammar of Sanskrit is not to engage in some relatively low-status scholarly endeavor, but is sooner comparable to the work of Big Bang cosmologists or theoretical physicists today. In his context, Pāṇini was more an Albert Einstein or a Stephen Hawking than a humble wordsmith.

Pāṇini’s sutras, by themselves, are virtually incomprehensible — they were composed not to be read, but to be memorized, as mnemonics, in order that their meaning could then be unravelled dialectically in an encounter between guru and disciple. Von Böhtlingk thus provides significant additional glosses in his own partial German translation of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, to the extent that we might better call it a “study” of the original work. One of the features of the Aṣṭādhyāyī of particular interest to von Böhtlingk is the author’s arrangement of, so to speak, the “atomic” elements of the language, otherwise known as its alphabet. In the Pāṇinian tradition, and indeed in the pedagogy of Sanskrit even today, consonants and vowels are arranged “periodically” according to the position in the mouth at which they are articulated. Thus:

So, for example, beginning with the velar consonant ka and reading from left to right up to the labial ma, effectively what one does is to repeat the same progression from the back to the front of the mouth five separate times. As with the p-block metals and non-metals, and as with the Italian second-person formal Lei, there are some signs of irregularity, some leftovers and “add-ons”. But as you are reciting the principal series, it is difficult not to feel that you are channeling something that is both orderly and eternal, something that preexists any effort to systematize it. If your ontology has it that language is the most real thing in the universe, rather than, say, material atoms, then this channeling can easily give rise to the impression that you are in the presence here of some fundamental truth about the structure of reality.

We have switched out phonemes for protons, in the few millennia between Pāṇini and Mendeleev, as the most basic elements of our world. The reasons for this development are complex and worthy of study, but it is not clear that this study can ever yield up a context-independent justification for the switch. That is, what we take to be an accurate “table” of the order of reality depends fundamentally on what sort of basic ingredients we take reality to be made up from. And once we fully appreciate this, and we understand the ultimate contingency of our starting points, it is much easier to see a schema as supposedly objective as the periodic table of the elements as the product of the human will to structure reality, and not as a straightforward mirror of a pre-given reality.

To learn that Mendeleev’s particular structuring exercise may have emerged in part out of casual conversations with a contemporary grammarian, for his part immersed in the works of an ancient grammarian who conceptualized his discipline as a fundamental inquiry into the nature of reality, adds an exciting twist indeed to the history of chemistry. But even if the link between Mendeleev’s periodic table and von Böhtlingk’s Sanskrit grammar has been exaggerated (I’ve not found any smoking-gun evidence of it in Mendeleev’s Collected Works), the fact that remains that the chemical table is but one periodic table of “elements” among others, and which one we take to best show us the structure of reality depends on whether we are, say, neo-Pythagorean cult members, or Brahmin priests, or materialist laboratory scientists. You might think you know which is the right one to be, but as for me I’m an outside observer of all of these communities, and I confess I think they are all, in their own way, crazy. For they all take the structures of their own minds for the nature of reality itself. Like any good skeptic —and postmodernism was always at bottom a variety of skepticism— I insist I have no idea what reality itself is like.


Welcome to the Neo-Cambrian

I have often insisted that the past years, with the rise of the internet and particularly of social media, have witnessed what we may rightly call a “Cambrian explosion” of new social kinds. Most of the species that have proliferated will of course quickly go extinct, and a 2011 hapax legomenon mentioning “frostgender”, for example, will be known to have existed only thanks to the Wayback Machine’s archiving of some Tumblr fossil, in just the same way we know of so many early Cambrian Baupläne thanks only to the Burgess Shale.

But whatever species end up surviving, it is clear that living through this explosion can provide valuable lessons, to those willing to pay attention, about the way reality, social and natural, gets its structure. For me, the shift over the past decade to CRISPR realism as our dominant epistēmē, and to militant non-skepticism about whatever new social kinds may float up in the River of Discourse, together provide a vivid demonstration of the basic correctness of Foucauldian historical ontology.

I will continue to nod along, I suppose, though with significant reservatio mentalis, when younger generations seize onto a line of the latest edition of the DSM, and seek to construct a meaningful social identity out of it (e.g., “the ADHD community”, as one often sees on social media). I will nod along, that is, up to a point. For it is not a matter of simple “contrarianism” —to use another favored term of our era’s conformist enforcers— to refuse to take whatever new world-ordering satisfies current social and political exigencies as if it were reality itself. It is rather a matter of resistance to the rising dogmatic tyranny of our age, which like any tyranny does not rest content with the achievement of mutual toleration and respect among members of society, but also insists on getting inside your head and fixing your thoughts as well.

I realize that in the seven months that I’ve been writing this Substack, I have been revisiting this same theme over and over again. Sometimes this strikes me as woeful repetition, while at other times I am hopeful that each new iteration hones the point more sharply. Either way, by now readers will have come to agree with me, or will have abandoned me, or, I suppose, will still be there for the simple pleasure of the hate-read.

In any case it’s clear where I stand: to a great degree we make our own world, and we should remain wary of any movement, of any political allegiance, that claims to be taking its dictates directly from what science reveals about reality. It’s always a lot more complicated than that. This was one of the most valuable, and timeless, lessons of postmodernism.