Thoughts on postmodernism


Epiphenomena.— Postmodernists rebelled against the idea of a social reality (truth), against society itself—withdrawing into their cocoon of literary theory and discourse-mongering—even as, and because, they implicitly accepted the new social reality of consumerism, narcissism, fragmented selves, fragmented ideologies, political disenchantment, and suppression of the working class. Their contempt for social reality was an expression of social reality.




Science, religion, and arrogance.— Postmodernists and other religious people—for postmodern political correctness is a kind of religion, a fundamentalism, like free-market ideology and strains of Islam—are fond of accusing reason’s partisans, such as scientists, of arrogance in relation to other ways of reaching “truth.” It is ironic, therefore, that from one perspective scientists are actually the humble ones, Christians, Muslims and so forth the arrogant ones. For humility is the very essence of science. It is the humility of the scientific method that explains its power, and justifies its proponents’ “faith” in it. Religious faith, on the other hand, is very arrogant, since, by definition, it isn’t subject to continual testing and revision in the light of new evidence. It is a projection of the believer’s desires and hopes into absolute truth.[1] In other words, the believer takes himself—his hopes, values, desires—as the measure of truth, whereas the scientist’s method is devoted precisely to suppressing his subjectivity.




Here’s Jean-François Lyotard speaking in 1987 on his famous little 1979 book (The Postmodern Condition) that brought the term “postmodernism” into general circulation: “I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I had never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody.... It’s the worst of my books, they’re almost all bad but that one’s the worst.” This statement encapsulates the general attitude of postmodernism (with some exceptions). Making up stories, adopting an ironic and self-parodying stance, playing games with oneself and others, not taking things too seriously, not caring about intellectual rigor and honesty or science or the accumulation of knowledge. Playful solipsism. Culturalism, literary expression over clear communication, the “play of signifiers” over genuine argument. It’s more appropriate to the analysis of literary and artistic creations than to the sciences or social sciences, because art criticism usually has less to do with truth, seriousness, “fixed meanings,” standards of reason, than with playful interpretations of artworks, experimental probings of possible meanings, nuanced investigation of forms, artistic and linguistic self-reference that has no contact with an external reality, streams of consciousness that don’t reach definite conclusions, speculative masturbation. Hence, postmodernism had great influence on artistic and cultural analysis and less on the sciences and social sciences. The latter march on much as they did before, while postmodernism is dying—or at least you hear about it less than you did fifteen years ago.


By the way, one reason why philosophical phenomenology was attractive to a lot of postmodern thinkers is that it has tendencies to a kind of relativism and even to solipsism: it makes no reference to a world outside consciousness. The philosopher Husserl enjoins thinkers to ignore questions about the “external world” and analyze “ideas” instead. So then later on you have European postmodernists, influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, saying that there is no external world, there is nothing outside language or discourse or paradigms or whatever they choose to call it. It’s just subjective idealism jargonized for the benefit of a less honest and more confused intellectual class. Questions about the “real” causes or explanations of phenomena cannot even be raised—like, the explanations of language, or digestion, or anything else—because in the idealist scheme, it makes no sense to talk about causes the operations of which we’re unaware of (because there is supposed to be nothing outside consciousness). So natural science is thrown out the window—as should have been obvious anyway because it refers to mind-independent matter, but Berkeley and Schopenhauer and Ernst Mach and the logical positivists somehow managed to overlook that fact (that necessarily realist perspective of science).[2]


It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the logical positivists can from one perspective be lumped together with poststructuralists: they both effectively denied or ignored external reality, though in different ways and for different reasons. It isn’t surprising, though. Even as science has made giant leaps forward by investigating a mind-independent physical world, the progress of modern society has made the individual ever more internal to himself, more skeptical of the world, alienated, set in opposition to the world, fixated on his consciousness (or his “sense-data”), more aware of himself as an individual distinct from the world. Hence you get phenomenology, existentialism, logical positivism, postmodernism, subjectivist and idealistic worldviews of all sorts.


It’s true that not all postmodernists were neo-“subjective idealists,” but all or nearly all were idealists of the more general anti-Marxian sort (emphasizing ideas and consciousness rather than economic relations and “social being”). Because they were obsessed with language and so-called discourses, most of them had little interest in sociology, economics or economic history, analysis of material conditions, class-structures, the state, business, “non-discursive” institutions. They basically ignored everything of real importance. In historiography, they had far more influence on cultural and intellectual history than anything else. In all his histories of madness, sexuality, the prison system and whatever else, Foucault somehow was able to largely disregard class, the economy, and the state, a fact that itself proves he wasn’t a serious thinker. He was essentially a rhetorician and an artist-historian, a historical artist who was prone to periodic flashes of insight. (He takes liberties with the facts, his scholarship is one-sided and unreliable, but his writing can be beautiful and occasionally insightful.) But all this idealism and sloppy thinking was appropriate to a time (post-1960s) when Marxist hopes had died, intellectuals were disillusioned with the working class and class analysis, business was on the offensive against progressive movements. Radical or formerly radical intellectuals retreated into their little academic world and pretended to effect revolutions in theory, devoted themselves to playing around with language and discourses and texts, declaring that these were the only realities. They were making a virtue of necessity: they had been outcast from social reality, so they decided that social reality was an illusion; only discourses, only their world, existed. It was collective therapy, or rather collective self-justification.


Moreover, postmodernism was allowed to be influential—it made it through institutional filters, as Chomsky would say, media filters, economic and political filters, academic filters—because it played into the hands of business and political power-structures. It didn’t fundamentally challenge consumer capitalism but in a sense justified it, celebrated it, proclaiming that “simulacra” were the only reality, that television was the new reality, that social class was just a “construct” and not of especial importance, thus effectively encouraging people to accept the world as it was and not to fight economic power. Any potentially oppositional “discourse” that reeks of solipsism or masturbation will be favored and propagated by powerful institutions, because it militates against social engagement.




Postmodernism yet again. (Sorry.)— It irks me when in class we’re told that someone like Joan Wallach Scott has been hugely important to the historical profession, and is widely admired, because of her theoretical arguments that extend Derrida and Foucault and “the linguistic turn” of the 1980s into the discipline of history. Arguments like “We [historians] need to scrutinize our methods of analysis, clarify our operative assumptions, and explain how we think change occurs. Instead of a search for single origins, we have to conceive of processes so interconnected that they cannot be disentangled. [Truism.] ...It is the processes that we must continually keep in mind. [Truism, idiocy.] ...To pursue meaning, we need to deal with the individual subject as well as social organization and to articulate the nature of their interrelationships, for both are crucial to understanding how gender works, how change occurs. [Truism, idiocy.] Finally, we need to replace the notion that social power is unified, coherent, and centralized [—Who has ever been stupid enough to think that social power is unified, coherent, and centralized?] with something like Michel Foucault’s concept of power as dispersed constellations of unequal relationships [utter truism], discursively constituted [?] in social ‘fields of force’ [pretentious, unilluminating metaphor].” Etc. This is what happens when people trained in history try their hand at theory, seduced, probably, by how profound and philosophical it makes them feel. But “the poverty of theory” is most evident when a Joan Scott wades into it.




On the history of theories of language.— The prehistoric understanding of words as possessing magical power, as being means of conjuring gods and controlling nature, has analogues all through history. For example, as Benedict Anderson notes in Imagined Communities, Church Latin, Koranic Arabic, and Examination Chinese were for a long time seen by their respective cultures as “truth-languages,” direct emanations of the divine. Essentially untranslatable, each the only medium through which reality could be apprehended. So, instead of being a tool for controlling the world (as in prehistoric, animist times), language—a particular language—was now only an expression of it, of the world’s innermost essence. One could no longer communicate with gods and influence them; one could only seek to understand them (or reality, the cosmos), by learning the divine language. This was a step towards the “disenchantment” of the world—as Max Weber would say—i.e., the self’s separation from essential reality, its alienation, its understanding of reality as transcendent instead of immanent (which it had been in the age of animism). With modernity came the final step, when the divorce between language and the world, thought and being, became absolute. Linguistic signs are now seen as arbitrary, in no way emanations of reality but rather “randomly fabricated representations of it.”


With postmodernism, though, it would seem that there has been an ironic—and ironically unconscious—return to the more naïve attitude. The separation between thought and reality, or “discourse” and the world-in-itself, has been repudiated, so that the world is now seen as constructed by discourses, “signifiers,” “significations,” etc. Actually no return to an earlier stage has happened; instead, alienation has been taken to an extreme: reality itself has been sloughed off, discarded, denied. There is no reality; there is only the play of subjectivities and significations. Truth, God, whatever, has become so “transcendent” it is supposed not even to exist! There is no anchor, only ethereal discourse. What can come after this stage? Presumably either the end of the world or some sort of negation of the negation.




I can’t help stating the obvious: I’m thrilled that the age of primarily “post-materialist” activism is coming to an end. Finally! All those elite postmodernists in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s proclaiming smugly that the age of materialism, of class struggle, was over....precisely when the ground was just beginning to cave in beneath the feet of the middle class and, much more so, the lower classes! In fact, the reason it was even possible to be fooled into the postmodern, post-materialist creed was the intensification of class war on the part of the corporate sector! With the help of government it broke the precarious post-WWII “capital-labor accord” (not an “accord” at all, really), smashed the labor movement, and so deprived labor of an effective voice in the political arena. But the crumbling of effectual class struggle on the weaker side coincided with, and was made possible by, the triumph of class war on the stronger side. Any idiot could have seen this. And any idiot could have seen that such trends couldn’t persist indefinitely, that a climax would have to come to the “rich-getting-richer, poor-getting-poorer” dynamic. A day of reckoning would come sooner or later. Feminism, multiculturalism, and gay-rights activism could make headway because they didn’t challenge the class structure or the profit-making agenda of the corporate class (and because they had money behind them). The rise of postmodernism, therefore, far from invalidating materialism, Marxism, etc., was made possible by institutional facts that only a Marxian or “economistic” analysis can explain. Postmodernism was the quintessential symptom and proof of what it denied, thus refuting itself, so to speak. In a sense, its mere existence and popularity refuted it (because, institutionally speaking, what was required for it to become the hegemonic discourse?).


Post-materialist activism is important, but not as important as activism addressing the need for shelter, sustenance, and security. It’s a matter of privileges versus survival.




[1] In the case of (much) postmodernism, the matter isn’t quite so simple. Rather, the existence of “cross-cultural” truth is denied; the rigorous search for evidence is abjured, which effectively allows the believer to believe what he or she wants.


[2] For the philosopher-casuists: I know the logical positivists didn’t self-identify as idealists. But they wanted to avoid the “metaphysical” question of the existence of mind-independent matter, so they recognized only sensations, sense-data, logical constructions out of the latter, etc., which means effectively that they were idealists of a peculiar sort. (Bracketing the external world, admitting only consciousness, sense-data, language, logic, mathematics, and trying to construct a philosophical system around sense-data as if “matter in itself” didn’t exist.) This is all silly, by the way, because the success of science is inexplicable except on the assumption that there really are such things as atoms, electrons, etc. Moreover, it is the postulation of such entities that makes scientific hypotheses explanatorily powerful.



© 2014-2020 by Chris Wright