A Brief History of Steve Pfohl

This mini-lecture is 4th in a set of lectures in memoriam to Carl Sagan who died this past month of leukemia at age 63. Sagan was, as most know, one of the most articulate and engaging reporters of astro-physics and the scientific knowledge process which gave it birth. His video series, Cosmos, remains as legacy to both his genius and his enthusiam for our long and unfinished voyage for understanding of the universe and our place, as humanist scholars, in it. Sagan spent his last years trying to do for the environment on earth what he had done for public concern, interest and engagement with astro-physics.

In this, the final lecture in honor of Sagan, I want to open up for the graduate student in sociology a vista of the knowledge process just now lumbering toward Bethelem to be born and to inform the human project. The Postmodern is still a subject of great debates, great angers and great personal animosities. Yet there is much that is valid in postmodern sensibility; much that is helpful to both human agency and to social justice. Your generation of social scientists; scholars and activists alike, must help rebuild the sociology, psychology, political science, economics and anthropology which my generation gave to you as a completed science.

In this last mini-lecture, I will use Steve Pfohl as icon for postmodern sensibility in sociology. Steve has seen this essay and has recommended it to his own students. I will summarize some of the points in it, and with the aid of Eudora, attach the original article for your perusal if you are so inclined.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF STEPHEN PFOHL. An essay on manifold truths, multiple realities and The Poetics of Social Science.

A.  Steve Pfohl serves as counterpoint to Stephen Hawking. While Hawking represents the best of modern science; pure intellect, sure and certain of truth, unburdened by doubt or passion, Pfohl represents the uncertainty, ambivalence and partisanship of postmodern social science.

I first met Steve Pfohl at Central Michigan University where he came to give his by-now famous/infamous presentation, Terror of the Simulacra: Struggle for Justice and the POstmodern. The presentation was engaging to some and infuriating to others at Central Michigan. Rather than distance himself and his life from the subject of his study as required by value-free methodology and as normative to most of the social scientists who are older than you or I, Steve used his childhood, his parents, his grade-school work, his nude body and his shaved head with its single braid as part and parcel of the discourse he brought us.

As background, you should know that Steve did his graduate work in sociology at Ohio State, a more traditional grad program one could not find in the USA. Then too, Steve is on the faculty at Boston College; another very conservative college...and he has been Chair of the Advisory Committee to the Governor of the State of Massachusetts. To make matters worse, Steve was elected President of the SSSP in 1991. If one considers the impossibilities in the career of Pfohl, one begins to get a sense of the incredible complexity and non-linearity of the knowledge process.

In a nutshell, Steve Pfohl embodies in his own person and his own work, the very essence of the postmodern; uncertainty, plurality, complexity, contrariety, and variability. Modern science would have required a Steve Pfohl be dispassionate, colorless, neutral and self-effacing. His defection to postmodernity is, I am sure, a great disappointment to those of his teachers and mentors who prefer the neat and tidy world of formal, axiomatic theory...they would prefer that Steve had become another Parsons, Zetterberg, Dodd or Lundberg...instead, he became icon and carrier of that most dreaded disease, postmodern doubt.

Steve Pfohl has made it his task to confront those truth claims made by Parsons, Davis, Moore, Hirschi, and others which lend themselves to stratification, control, elitism and elitist science. Against truth claims based upon class, racism, or gender privilege, Steve wants to bring forward truth claims which take the point-of-view of the poor, of radical-feminists, of postmodern scholars and activist scholars.

In his 1989 Presentation at CMU, Steve began his tutorial on the postmodern with slides of his own work in elementary school. He made the case that the simulacra of mass education, mass sports, mass media and mass religion imprinted racism, patriarchy, and patriotism on his mind, on his body and upon his life...and these images in his mind, self and soul entail terror...terror for those who would honor other truths, other ethnicities, other sexualities, other cultures and other other-nesses.

Instead of using charts, graphs, tables, descriptive and inferential statistics to ground the knowledge process, Steve uses music, art, video tapes, slides, moving picture projector and his own voice-over as media for this most disturbing message. The method was not that of a successive approximation of Absolute Truth via experimentation, validation/falsification, generalization and replication as required by most practitioneers of the knowledge process in modern sociology, but rather a poetic rotogravure in which Steve expanded the knowledge process to include both the audience and the political economy inside which the knowledge process is imprisoned.

Steve used Oliver North as counterpoint to his own epistemological break with massified social psychology in school, church, media and politics. Out of the same social structures and social processes, two very different adult emerged. North internalized the images/simulacra impressed and imprinted upon his mind, self and soul; the images of life and love both Pfohl and North received from the image managers of modern mass society called for homage for and allegiance to '...industrialized, stratified, racist, imperial and partiarchal western society.'

Oliver North, as many know, was the dark agent of secret military ventures unknown to the American public and unapproved by the US Congress. North, a Colonel in the Armed Forces, worked out of the Reagan White House...he engineered counter-insurgency work from Iran to Nicaragua. Reagan and other presidents before him had put together secret armies, secret budgets, secret and illegal foreign policies in the effort to make the world safe for multi-national capitalism.

Both Pfohl and North were exposed to the John Wayne/James Bond images of masculinity and patriotism...North accepted but Pfohl rejected these simulacra.

In the full paper, I go beyond Steve and talk about a wide array of rebellions to the images, models, and paradigms of 'normal' science...rebellions which are the center-point of postmodernity. Cultural rebellions in art, music, drama, literature and poetry play a role in this wide ranging critique of modern/modernity.

Feminism is very important to a postmodern sociology; I mention some elements of feminist scholarship which try to wrest away the knowledge process from formal, control-oriented theory and social policy. I try to lay out some alternate forms of family and intimacy which are not projected as normal and natural...but which entail both intimacy and mutual empowerment of human members.

Then too, there is a postmodern philosophy emerging. I base my own version upon Chaos/Complexity theory...with other such efforts, I agree that aristotlean logic, newtonian dynamics, leibnizean calculus, pascalian probability and pearsonian statistical summaries of chance and certainty are inappropriate to knowledge of human/social behavior. New research tools, new research designs, new non-linear descriptive mathematics and new, much less intrusive forms of social control are required if we are to do right by the non-linear social dynamics which are found in complex societies.

I end this article with an effort to describe a postmodern sociology of the sort with which Steve Pfohl and the new generation of sociologists can be comfortable. To do that, I need a lot of help. I need your help...your assignment, for the next 35 years, is to rebuild American Sociology and indeed, Austrialian, New Zealandian, Lithuanian and British Sociolgy in a way more congenial to the social data at hand and more friendly to an interactively rich and informationally rich democracy.

TR Young

Red Feather
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