Postmodern theory may be the most loathed concept ever to have emerged from academia. Developed within literature and philosophy departments in the 1970s, it supposedly told us that facts were debatable, that individual perspectives mattered most, that shared meaning was an illusion and that universal truth was a myth.
The right quickly identified these notions as a danger to the very foundations of society and spent decades flogging the university lefties who promoted them. In “Tenured Radicals,” Roger Kimball accused academic theorists of trying to redefine the traditional humanities as “a species of political grievance-mongering” for which virtue equals “whatever sexual, feminist, Marxist, racial, or ethnic agenda to which the particular critic has declared his allegiance.” Norman Podhoretz believed that postmodernism was an attack on moral order. More recently, Victor Davis Hanson faulted postmodernism for President Barack Obama’s handling of health care legislation, writing, “In the gospel of postmodern relativism, what did it matter if the president of the United States promised that Obamacare would not alter existing health-care plans when it was clear that it would?”
Later, centrists and liberals searching for a culprit behind the ascent of Donald Trump and the war on fact that surrounds him joined the conservative crusade. Michiko Kakutani, the cultural critic and author of “The Death of Truth,” blames the relativism that facilitated Trump’s rise on “academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism.” Lamenting the state of American politics under Trump, philosopher Daniel Dennett said in an interview last year, “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil.” And when Rudy Giuliani recently told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth,” Vox claimed that it wasn’t “the first time Trump’s legal team has played postmodernist and hinted that it might be too hard to discern the truth because it’s all relative anyway.”
These challenges to postmodern theory did identify an important crisis: Losing a shared vocabulary for the world’s problems, for the way we relate to one another and for current events may be the greatest threat to American society. What did it mean that the pro-life movement could fashion itself as an avatar of women’s empowerment or that a white woman like Rachel Dolezal could simply declare that she is black?
Yet these problems were exactly what worried postmodern theorists. Their project was an attempt to understand why people had begun to interpret material facts so differently. And while their answers may not have been the final word, we might still learn from them , if we weren’t so attached to a misunderstanding of what they had to say.
We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.
Subsequently, “postmodernism” would come to describe a range of theories about the character of language and of knowledge in the world. Drawing on developments in fields from linguistics to cybernetics, Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it. Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality. Each of these concepts was an attempt to identify trends that, according to postmodern theorists, were changing our understanding of language, truth and knowledge. Marx had written, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But philosophers of postmodernity inverted that goal, seeking mainly to interpret it.
By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university. Within academia, however, Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
Right-leaning critics in the decades since Bloom have crassly contorted this argument into a charge that postmodernism was made not by consumerism and other large-scale social and technological developments, but by dangerous lefty academics, or what Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
Today, critics on both left and right are happy to wave their fingers at postmodern theory, so long as they can blame it for the Trump electorate’s unprecedented disregard for the truth. In Quillette — an online magazine obsessed with the evils of “critical theory” and postmodernism — Matt McManus reflects on “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism.” From the right, David Ernst contends that “Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself .” And from the left, Kakutani recently wrote in the Guardian: “Relativism has been ascendant since the culture wars began in the 1960s. Back then, it was embraced by the New Left, who were eager to expose the biases of western, bourgeois, male-dominated thinking; and by academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism, which argued that there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths — perceptions shaped by the cultural and social forces of one’s day. Since then, relativistic arguments have been hijacked by the populist right.”
Kakutani’s suggestion that we can trace the roots of Trump-era post-truth politics to postmodernism is similar to an argument in Lee McIntyre’s recent book, “Post-Truth.” “Even if right-wing politicians and other science deniers were not reading Derrida and Foucault,” writes McIntyre, “the germ of the idea made its way to them.”
In each of these cases, the writers invoke postmodernism to describe not a contested set of observations about the state of knowledge and culture but a committed belief system that forms the basis of partisan political calculations. Kakutani’s choice of words — “the gospel of postmodernism” — conjures such a system.
This “gospel” characterization is misleading in two ways. First, it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened. Second, as soon as postmodernism became a fashionable topic in the humanities and social sciences, it became a subject of extensive debate. Postmodernism is a contested series of assertions by many different people from several disciplines, hardly a monolithic philosophy.
What’s more, attempts to blame postmodernist theory for post-truth are often missing a key ingredient, like a quiche without the eggs. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism, as Kakutani suggests. McIntyre goes a little further, noting that figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
Further, because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
It’s clear that current trends long predate our theories of postmodernism. Kakutani opens her Guardian essay with a quote from Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” But Arendt herself thought political dissimulation was much older. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
Still, we can’t say that academic meditations on postmodernity have had no influence on culture at large — it’s just that actual evidence of their impact is scarce. It’s one thing to help people understand that facts don’t emerge in a vacuum or that grand narratives aren’t always accurate explanations for the way things are. But it’s another thing to suggest that such ideas have encouraged society at large to reject scientific fact as “just another opinion.” Cernovich may — if he’s not lying to sow yet more discord — draw on postmodernist theory to fuel misinformation, but Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.
Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.
Ironically, the urge to blame postmodernism for Trump-era politics blinds us to the explanatory value postmodernism holds for what’s happening today. It’s easy to scoff at, for example, Baudrillard’s book “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” writing it off as just another instance of postmodernist claptrap, the denial of an objective truth so obvious as “the Gulf War happened.” But if we bother to understand Baudrillard’s thesis — that our impressions of the conflict have been warped by media framing and agitprop — it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.
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