In the slew of rightist culture-war bogeymen, from “cultural Marxism” to “critical race theory”, one of the most surprising candidates for obloquy is postmodernism.
In December 2020, the women and equalities minister Liz Truss bewailed “postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours”. The malign influence of postmodernism, she suggested, had reached directly into working-class Leeds communities in the 1980s, where children were taught about racism and sexism but not how to read and write. Remarkably, then, the putative failures of education policy, above all the supposed failings of local authorities, were down to 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault.
To an extraordinary degree, postmodernism has become the universal scapegoat of the era, the bête noir of “Resistance” liberals, reactionaries, “New Atheists” and trademarked defenders of “Reason”. The irrational and incoherent fear of the “pomo”, or pomophobia, has claimed minds from across the political spectrum. According to the American literary critic Michiko Kakutani, postmodernism is responsible for the assault on knowledge and reason that allowed Donald Trump to lie his way into the White House.
The journalist Matthew D’Ancona claims that postmodern intellectuals have encouraged a toxic relativism by treating “everything” as a “social construct”, and so allowing “fake news” to thrive. YouTuber and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that postmodernism is the new skin for an old Marxism that seeks to subvert the West. In Peterson’s account, postmodernism is essentially the claim that all truths are relative, and all truth-claims are instruments of the struggle for power: Peterson calls this bastardised Nietzscheanism “the resentful pathology of Marxism”.
For New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, postmodernism is an insidious assault on reason and the scientific method, led by academic careerists. There was even a time, now passed, when “muscular liberals” such as Christopher Hitchens and David Aaronovitch blamed postmodern relativism for the left’s apparent softness towards dictators and Islamic fundamentalism, manifest in its opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While “postmodernism” peaked as a cultural trend in the early 1990s, it has now come to symbolise something corrosive, insidious and threatening to the social order.
Before asking what postmodernism is, it is worth clarifying what it isn’t. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) did not “pioneer” postmodernism. He would not even have described himself as a postmodernist. In its post-Second World War inception, “postmodern” was principally an aesthetic category, referring to literary and architectural forms that superseded the formal ambition of modernism. Only in the 1970s did “postmodernity” acquire social and political content, inasmuch as the postmodern world was thought to be post-industrial, beyond class conflict, and increasingly beyond left and right. Far from exhorting a militant confrontation with “societal power structures”, early postmodernists tended to be sceptical of left-wing politics.
Nor did the postmodern style become more militant over time. The first major work using the term was Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979), the main concern of which was the collapse, in a post-industrial economy, of modernity’s “grand narratives” of history. Lyotard celebrated this because he feared that these narratives, above all Marxism, were totalitarian. Lyotard’s sense of how meta-narratives were collapsing resonated with many left-wing intellectuals who had been formed by the uprisings of 1968 and their subsequent retreat.
In the ensuing faddish uptake of postmodernism, the work of philosophers such as Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and sometimes the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, was often cited as its intellectual antecedent because of the ways in which it challenged conventional views of the Enlightenment. Specifically, their work drew attention to the often subtle forms of power that were concealed in the trappings of reason and scientific advancement, and the ways in which colonialism, racism, sexism and class shaped the European idea of “reason”.
But the category of postmodernism was almost completely vacuous. It did not describe a single philosophical enterprise, political agenda or sociological outlook which could be identified and pilloried. At most, it described a zeitgeist, an intellectual sensibility arising from the decline of industry, the rise of knowledge economies, mass consumerism and the crisis of Marxism. A sensibility that was pluralist, sceptical, resistant to any form of essentialism or reductivism, and in most cases politically accommodating.
This was particularly the case on Paris’s Left Bank, where “postmodern” intellectuals such as Lyotard were likely to have been swayed by the violently anti-Marxist “new philosophers” who campaigned to stop the election of a “union of the left” French government that brought together the Socialist and Communist parties: a campaign that reached its hysterical zenith in the 1978 legislative elections. And as it filtered into US academia, postmodernism was far more likely to be associated with pragmatic left-liberals such as Richard Rorty than any militant tendency.
What, then, of the postmodern assault on “reason”? Whatever political direction the attack comes from, all seem to agree that postmodernism is essentially the claim that everything is relative, and everything is a social construct. Even the scientific method isn’t politically neutral, and even reality is linguistically constructed.
This is not a wholly unreasonable conclusion to reach, owing to the way postmodernism aligned with two other intellectual trends that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The first was a pronounced culturalism, in which various philosophers and social scientists laid extraordinary emphasis on the organising role of culture and language in all areas of life, including our inherited notions of science, experimentation and truth. The second was scientific “anti-realism”. In the philosophy of science, realists assert that scientific theories are not just workable explanations for the data but are likely to be approximately true. And, as scientific endeavour progresses, these theories get ever closer to the truth.
Anti-realists, such as the US philosopher Hilary Putnam, dispute this. They argue that all scientific theories are “underdetermined” by the data, particularly when they relate to non-observable objects such as genes, so there is no good reason to assume they are correct. Moreover, they draw a pessimistic inference from the fact that past scientific theories have usually been in some important ways false, to suggest that current theories are probably false too. Far from being an inherently unreasonable view, this position is usually grounded in empiricism and a historicist reading of scientific practices.
This is all academic and far from exciting, so anyone wanting to wage a culture war against postmodernism has to find an emotionally potent oversimplification that cuts through the complexity. Emblematic of the pomophobes’ approach is the enormous fuss they have made about a minor scandal in 1996 known as the “Sokal hoax”. Alan Sokal, a mathematician and physicist, used his authority as a scientist to get a hoax opinion article published in the cultural journal Social Text. The premise of the hoax was that American academics were so intoxicated by trendy postmodern relativism that they would publish anything that expressed scepticism towards “reality” and the “scientific method”, no matter how absurd.
Since the hoax was revealed, the ersatz defenders of reason haven’t stopped guffawing. But the hoax was meaningless. Social Text was not a “postmodernist” publication. The editors’ mistake was not being seduced by the article’s pomo affectations – it seems that they asked Sokal to remove most of this material, and he refused – but their willingness to trust a credentialled expert to know his field and deal with them honestly. Even if the worst were true, it would tell us little about postmodernism. One lousy parody published in a small journal proves nothing. If it were a scientific experiment, it would be a dud.
It is, however, the titillation of scandal, of pointing out the emperor’s nudity, that licenses the cheerful ignorance and philistinism of the pomophobic backlash. For as little as the Sokal hoax did to advance knowledge, it became the basis of a book Sokal co-wrote with the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, published in English as Fashionable Nonsense (1997), attacking what they saw as the impostures of postmodern intellectuals. This was no better than yobbish jeering about inscrutable texts. In presenting examples of what it claimed as intellectual pretension – whether Luce Irigaray’s feminist reading of science or Jacques Lacan’s use of “mathemes” in exposing his psychoanalytic method – the book made minimal effort to understand them.
Yet while Sokal and Bricmont at least engaged with their opponents’ ideas at some level, many critics no longer feel the need to do so. It is sufficient for Kakutani, Peterson or Truss to knowingly mention the term “postmodernism”, for many people to assume they know what they are talking about. Recently, a number of right-wing culture war entrepreneurs have engaged in a similar credential-building exploitation of slightly obscure references. Consider conservative documentarian Christopher Rufo, who appeared on Fox News in September last year claiming to possess insider knowledge about the dangers posed by “critical race theory”, a gambit that worked because of his audience’s clickbait-driven appetite for scandal. One might call it disinfotainment. The overall effect of this is to tranquillise thought, stifling curiosity with bullying appeals to the obvious. And as mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg warned in the wake of Sokal, “sometimes the obvious is the enemy of the true”.
Most worrying of all, however, is the countersubversive edge of contemporary pomo-bashing. As with the attack on critical race theory, there is an element of “shooting the messenger”: blaming critical theory for the social problems it diagnoses. Where postmodern intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard have described a collapse of the “reality principle” as “socialisation is measured by the exposure to media messages”, pomophobes like D’Ancona have accused them of hastening this process.
The culture war against postmodernism is conducted in the spirit of inquisition, whether postmodernism is deemed an obscurantist attack on truth, or a neo-Marxist attempt to “deconstruct” the West (as right-wing Australian news anchor Chris Uhlmann once complained). The logic appears to be that these left-wing intellectuals are always complaining, criticising, dividing people and undermining our self-confidence. They’re always doing us down. The crises in political trust, in traditional gender norms, in scientific consensus, and in the historical self-image and self-belief of modern states, are all the fault of these postmodernists, critical race theorists and “cultural Marxists”. If only something could be done about them.