A Thinkerís Guide to Postmodernism
(Or: Anatomy of an Academic Racket)
an old saying maybe I came up with it myself years ago
that if you want to find out how much junk you really have: move.
Youíll have to transport it all at once, and if you donít
know how much junk you have, youíll soon find out. I did, having
recently relocated across two states to undertake some new projects.
Moving can be a hassle, but it has an upside: something might turn
up youíd completely forgotten about. For a writer, this can mean
finding an item perhaps just a collection of notes, perhaps
more that youíd set aside and then simply dropped down the
memory hole. Sometimes, when you move, a bona fide gem can surface
amidst the debris.
recently happened to me, as I uncovered a set of notes Iíd taken
long ago for an article on postmodernism, alongside the religion
of diversity one of the reigning orthodoxies of todayís academy.
Itís easy to get bogged down just taking notes on postmodernism,
especially if youíre trying to make sense of the primary sources.
The subject is rather mysterious for most people. For good reason.
Postmodernists, one quickly learns, are not exactly clear about
what they are doing. Consider this, from one of the founders of
would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable
in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of
good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible
to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that
which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them
but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.
what I mean? That is from a French writer named Jean-Francois Lyotard,
from his book The
Postmodern Condition (published in French in 1979), p. 81.
If sentences were made to be eaten, that one would give you heartburn.
A huge quantity of academic product is worse than that, to the point
of unintelligibility, which is why most of it gathers dust in university
libraries unread. Lyotard is also the author of a collection of
essays called The
Postmodern Explained. If there is anything for certain,
it is that a book entitled The Postmodern Explained, probably
some sense can be made of what postmodernism is all about, in a
way that pulls the movement down from its academic Mt. Olympus.
Let us try. Cutting through all the jargon, the neologisms, the
double-talk and a lot of hideously bad writing, what do postmodernists
really believe? Do they believe anything we can pin down? Is there
anything to postmodernism, or is it just another racket, like Keynesian
economics or Kinseyan sex-ed? Letís take these one at a time.
is a catalogue culled from those old notes of what
postmodernists seem to believe. I offer them advisedly; postmodernists
are slippery as eels, and if they excel at anything it is in weaseling
their way out of assuming responsibility for having assumed or taken
for granted these kinds of propositions. I trust Iíll be forgiven
for not illustrating every one of them with a lavish set of quotations
or footnotes. Surely you donít want to wade through a darkened swamp
of linguistic murkiness beyond what you just saw. So here we go.
"There are no absolute truths" which may be expressed
as, "There are no absolutes," or "The search for
knowledge yields no final and lasting results," or any of a
number of variations on this theme. Of course, this is hardly a
new idea. Nietzsche seems to have believed something much like it
over a hundred years ago. So, apparently, did many of those in a
school of ancient Greek philosophy called the Sophists (from whom
we derive the word sophistry). The idea is logically self-destructive,
though. It presents itself as an absolute truth, or a final and
lasting result. In other words, it contradicts itself. Besides,
it is surely false in science, life and morality. In science, there
is absolute zero, for example. This is a fairly important
concept the coldest anything can be. Modern physics and chemistry
require it, even if experimenters have never actually chilled anything
to that temperature. In life, if youíre run over by a car youíre
absolutely dead. Absolutes in morality seem to bother
people more, though, than absolutes in physics. However, Iím sure
most readers would agree that causing pain or suffering to an innocent
person with no greater good in mind (e.g., treating an illness with
a shot) is absolutely wrong, and that only a sociopath of
some kind would fail to understand that.
"Claims to truth are just concealed impositions of authority
masking social structures of domination." A few years ago I
had the dubious pleasure of a long correspondence with a professor
of public administration at a major university who repeated, like
a mantra, that "Truth is determined by authority." For
a long time the statement had me baffled. If youíll notice, itís
caught in the same contradiction: surely the professor wanted to
claim that his own statement was true but in the context
of our "relationship" it couldnít be true because he had
no authority over me. (He also disavowed any relationship to the
postmodernist movement although he continued to parrot views
that were indistinguishable from its heroes.) Postmodernists, having
abandoned truth, are obsessed by power. They take their cues from
classical and cultural Marxism, maintaining that certain groups
(usually white heterosexual males) maintain or are maintained in
"structures of domination" over other groups (everyone
else). Postmodernists, like Marx before them, draw sweeping generalizations
about how different groups live in different "universes."
For Marx, of course, the difference was between bourgeoisie and
proletariat. For postmodernists, the disconnect can fall along the
lines of race, or gender, or sexual preference, or some combination
of these. This brings us to 3.
"Everything is relative to history and culture."
This idea, which controls the mindsets of the multiculturalists
and their ilk, isnít new, either. It, too, goes back to the ancient
Greeks. It also contradicts itself. If everything is relative to
history and culture, then the truth or knowledge of the statement
that everything is relative to history and culture is again itself
relative to history and culture in this case, the "history
and culture" of the postmodernist movement, whatever that might
be (academic culture?). Relativism of this sort is destroyed by
its own internal logic.
"We canít know anything for certain." When I hear
something like this, I want to respond with, Who is this we,
anyway? Thereís a definite collectivism surrounding postmodernism,
a collectivism about truth and knowledge as well as in politics
and economics one that ties in closely with their beliefs
about history and culture. Postmodernists really believe that there
is nothing but consensus. They claim not to be able to make sense
about truth as correspondence with facts of reality. More recent
postmodernists extend their exegeses to science, saying that scientific
truths are invented and not discovered. Of course, a consensus
can change. What was "true" yesterday can therefore be
"false" today. Nothing is certain. Except, again, the
statement that nothing is certain. Again weíve hit a blank wall
of contradiction. (Besides, while our theories about gravity
may well be inventions, gravity itself is certainly not.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is hereby invited to test the hypothesis
by stepping off the roof of my building itís only perhaps
20 feet down.)
"An individualís beliefs result from psychological, social
or chemical conditioning." Aside from the contradiction problem
here, too, such statements have been the source of huge amounts
of mischief. Much of what passes for education in todayís government
schools, going back at least as far as John Dewey, is based on the
idea that children are just products of conditioning and its companion
idea that the causes of their behavior can be changed, making them
into good little socialists. The basic idea goes back to a man named
Wilhelm Wundt (18321920), sometimes thought of as the "father
of experimental psychology." Wundt was a complete materialist
who saw human beings as nothing more than sophisticated animals
to be studied and manipulated in laboratories no differently than
one would study white mice. While some look to Nietzsche as standing
at the origins of the postmodernist movement, the school of thought
that began with Wundt surely contributed to it as well, for the
Wundtian approach to the human person did much to remove the concept
of individual responsibility from the intellectual scene.
"The human essence is its collectivity." I am here paraphrasing
something Karl Marx once said. A firm belief almost as if
thought to be a true belief (goddess forbid!) of this
sort lies at the heart of all postmodernist theorizing about knowledge
as rooted in human social life. It helps to keep in mind that most
postmodernists are willing to endorse the cultural Marxist thesis
that humanity comes divided into two large groups, oppressors (straight
white Christian males) and victims (everyone else). Hence the close
ties between postmodernism and radical feminism, or with identity-politics
generally, and with that ragtag bunch that canít accept that the
Cold War is over and they lost.
once had the strangest conversation with an English professor about
my age (the sort who gets hired in todayís universities) who, upon
learning that I reject the group-identity politics at the core of,
say, affirmative action ideology, asked me, "Youíre white,
youíre a male, youíre a heterosexual [did he know this for certain?].
When you subtract these, whatís left?" Subtract them? Whatever
was he talking about? What was standing in front of him, attempting
to converse with him, was an acting person, an individual who happened
to be white, male, etc. There is, of course, no room for the autonomous
individual in the postmodernist bestiary.
"We arenít really saying that there are no absolutes,
or that truth is relative to history and culture, just that the
search to define Ďtrueí has ended in failure." In that case,
I beg to differ; weíve found some useful things to say about the
notion the problem is, none of them support the postmodernistsí
political goals of more socialism and more so-called diversity.
is, of course, the postmodernistís final fallback stance: if you
believe all that self-contradiction stuff it just shows how youíve
privileged your white, male, heterosexist, Eurocentrist, Aristotelian
logic. Note first this use of privileged as a verb instead
of an adjective the most common literary tic among postmodernist
writers. Note second that postmodernists who have made such claims,
such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith of the infamous English Department
at Duke University (who once wrote a tedious article entitled "Unloading
the Self-Refutation Charge," published in an otherwise obscure
journal called Common Knowledge) are utterly unable to present
anything resembling a clear alternative to "white, male, heterosexist,
Eurocentrist, Aristotelian logic." Barbara Herrnstein Smith
gave it the old college try, but her references to such things as
"applicability, connectability, stability" are presented
with no further explanation, and so fall flat, utterly unconvincing.
In what ways do these overturn Aristotelian logic? She doesnít tell
us probably because she doesnít know.
can be looked at as an intellectual movement, or as a phenomenon
of contemporary academia. As an intellectual movement, it looks
suspiciously like the product of minds chronically out of focus.
The ideas themselves arenít new, as weíve noted. Most can be traced
to the ancient Greeks or to Marx or to Nietzsche (white males
all, I cannot resist pointing out). Occasionally postmodernism borrows
from American pragmatism usually John Deweyís version of
it, because Deweyís philosophy emphasizes flux and change (with
an eye to changing children for social engineering purposes, of
of the ideas, moreover, suffer from terminal confusions that are
repeated from author to author. Take for example the claim, popular
among postmodernists, that "We have no Godís Eye point of view."
I would have to agree, because we are not God! But so what? It doesnít
follow that our own point of view is invalid. Such claims are often
bound up with the postmodernist rejection of such ideals as objectivity
and rationality. Objectivity in particular, the postmodernist considers
an illusion. But when we inspect writers such as the above-mentioned
Herrnstein Smith it is clear that they are confusing objectivity
with a quite different notion, omniscience. Being objective
just means basing your beliefs on the relevant facts in your scope
of awareness, as well as being flexible and aware of your own limitations.
Being objective doesnít mean basing oneís belief on all the
facts, whatever that might mean, just relevant facts. I imagine
there is some fact of the matter as to how many blades of grass
there are on the lawn beside my apartment. No one would care, because
the information wouldnít be of use to anyone. But the point is,
there is some number that could, in principle, be discovered. But
it wouldnít be a fact relevant to anything, so Iím not holding my
breath waiting for someone to count them. We base our beliefs on
relevant facts because we can use them to improve knowledge or achieve
our ends. Our scope of awareness, moreover, changes as we discover
new relevant facts. Here is where the flexibility and awareness
of our limits comes in. We arenít infallible, so reasonable thinkers
build fallibility into their concept of objectivity. This concept
is much richer and more flexible than most of todayís intellectuals
give it credit for being (this includes Randians!).
of course, means total knowledge of the sort Christians attribute
to God. Of course we donít have this, and we never will not
in this life, anyway. But we do have partial knowledge of
most things, including things postmodernists call "social constructions."
We have lots and lots of partial knowledge, in fact. We donít know
if our current physical theories about gravitation are complete.
We might see Einstein revised or replaced somewhere down the road.
But this doesnít mean that gravity isnít a real phenomenon we experience
everyday especially when we step on the scale and donít like
what we see! Likewise, few of us can say we understand electricity.
But we all flip switches and know not to stick our fingers into
wall sockets. At a more basic level, how many of us can give a complete
and accurate account of how our carís engine works? But we all drive
everyday. We could multiply these specifics at length. When held
up to the light of common horse sense, philosophical skepticism
is silly. But postmodernism is rooted in a deeply skeptical, almost
cynical view of our logical and cognitive abilities.
sum, the postmodernist complaint seems to be that (as they might
put it) reality is not completely transparent: we canít just look
at the world and achieve universal knowledge of it right off the
bat. Now there are some truths I believe we are as certain about
as we ever need to be that five plus seven equals twelve,
that electricity powers lightbulbs and computers, that hot stoves
burn, that it rained yesterday, that capitalism is superior to socialism,
that causing the innocent to suffer for no good reason is wrong,
and many others besides. And then there are other truths that are
going to be very, very hard to find out the precise nature
of quarks, for example, or what really happens with regard to gravitation
at the event horizon of a black hole. But no one except postmodernists
is losing much sleep over such things, or concluding from this that
we donít have considerable knowledge in our day-to-day world or
even in "ordinary" science.
a sociological phenomenon of contemporary academia, postmodernism
looks very much like the product of a privileged intellectual class
that doesnít want the rest of us to see that the emperor (or empress)
has no clothes. So they surround ideas, many of them centuries old,
in trappings of unintelligible prose, all portrayed in the excitement
of conferences where they announce how diverse their faculties now
are. Many Ivy League universities have been dominated by this sort
of thing for a number of years now, which is a good reason
it seems to me for prospective students to steer clear of
those places. Most state-sponsored public universities are following
suit because what the "upper-tier" colleges and
universities do, the "lower-tier" ones try to imitate.
hostile job market in academe also helps postmodernism. When
there are hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job in some
cases, hiring committees can pretty much do what they want (within
the limits of the religion of diversity, of course). So they tend
to hire intellectual clones of themselves. Nonconformists learn
early on that they are not welcome, that their services are not
required. And so what has helped the triumph of postmodernism in
todayís university environment is not intellectual superiority in
a "marketplace of ideas" but the equivalent of inbreeding.
(There are colleges that are exceptions to this, of course, but
they are relatively few in number.) But what this means is that
postmodernism, despite all the attention it has received, is really
a racket. When you look for substance, there is no "there"
there: as a postmodernist might put it.
article published here not too long ago explored in some detail
additional causes of academia generally becoming a racket
many of these have to do with the fact that the whole structure
of higher education in America is outmoded. Most of it just isnít
needed anymore. Serious education can be delivered by correspondence
or over the Internet, and done so much more cheaply without
the overhead required by operating on a huge, sprawling campus.
Cyber-education is looking more and more like the wave of the future,
as institutions like the University of Phoenix which delivers nearly
all its education online enroll tens of thousands of students. In
the immortal words of Michael Doonesbury, there are still a few
bugs in the system, but one thing is assured: the technology of
delivery is going to improve. Only accreditation, employed by the
established institutions with the heavy hand of government support,
prevents the collapse of this system in the face of changing technology
and the desires of students who want a real education.
might look back over all this and wonder what the fuss is about.
Isnít postmodernism an academic movement that is, well, academic
in the pejorative sense in which one says, "itís an
academic matter," meaning pointless? If only this were
the case. The fact is, a postmodernist mindset permeates Western
culture today. It is evident in all the hypersensitivity
a fear many people have of defending their own deepest convictions
lest they hurt someoneís feelings, or "offend" someone.
Few people are willing to assert their beliefs as true
lest they offend someone, or be derided as "judgmental"
or "authoritarian"! Just the other day at a meeting I
listened to a speaker state her reasons for not using the word Easter
Easter is a distinctively Christian holiday, of course,
and she feared she might offend any Muslims or Buddhists
that might be present. This woman was a professed Christian. She
is not an academic, and I would not classify her as a radical leftist
or even outside the mainstream in her views. But she was afraid
to assert them as if they were true, and therefore worth
asserting as superior to their competitors.
is not uncommon; a subtle postmodernism has crept into the official
scripts of numerous Christian denominations. It has also affected
the workplace, where it threatens to compromise important goals.
One of my current contracts involves technical writing and editing
for a cancer-prevention research network. Cancer prevention is a
laudable goal, because too many people die needlessly from the various
forms of this disease. But at another meeting just recently I listened
to a speaker regale the audience with claims that insufficient diversity
and insufficient "cultural sensitivity" were interfering
with cancer prevention efforts. Naturally, he dragged the Confederate
flag into his rant. It may be true enough that blacks donít trust
white doctors or clinicians; but might this not be the fault of
those who have spent the last 50 years erecting a near-insurmountable
cultural divide between the races? Such efforts are not going to
achieve worthy goals when diversity and sensitivity become the overriding
factors. The postmodernist mindset is partially responsible for
this, to the extent that diversity and sensitivity
are more important than truth and the conditions of effective
Clinton was arguably our first postmodernist president someone
for whom "truth" was entirely fluid. The result was that
he could tell us in one State of the Union speech that "the
era of big government is over" while continuing to sign executive
orders and enact policies that expanded the size and scope of government.
(Or think of his, "It depends on what the meaning of Ďisí is"
not that the Lewinsky episode the media was trumpeting was
more important than on what they kept carefully under the wraps:
their heroís selling of nuclear secrets to the Chinese Communists
to help finance his re-election campaign.) Under Clintonís watch
we found ourselves buried under an avalanche of double-speak and
official falsehoods: about foreign policy, about the economy, about
education. By the late 1990s, in particular, it is fair to say we
were living in a government-media-PCcreated fantasy world.
George W. Bush and the neocons, instead of reversing course, have
picked up essentially where Clinton left off. Bush has expanded
the size and scope of the federal government more than Clinton did.
He has repudiated very little of the Clintonian agenda. The neocon
worldview is closer to postmodernism than I think theyíd care to
admit. Ask the neocons what, in the spirit of conservatism, they
are attempting to conserve, and youíll get the same blank stares
of noncomprehension as I got from the English professor above when
I discussed the individual person.
in other words, yes, this matters. It isnít an academic game. Ideas
do have consequences when they are carried from educational
institutions into the rest of society. The effect of postmodernism
on politics has been the abandonment of truth, including moral truth,
so that power gets the last word as it is doing today in
our governmentís present and prospective interventions in the Middle
East. Once youíve abandoned truth, you feel free to plan, and to
carry out those plans, as if there were no constraints such as those
of either economics or the desires of indigenous peoples to rule
themselves. I cannot begin to discuss the effects of postmodernism
on popular culture, from movies to music to art and fiction, and
so on down the line. Weíd be here all night and all day. How do
we combat the effects of postmodernism? Iíd say that we have our
work cut out for us. Fortunately, the common horse-sense many people
carry with them through life if it hasnít been "educated"
out of them in government schools saves them from the worst
excesses of the postmodernist mindset. For the rest, a detailed
study of basic logic might help. But thatís another
Yates [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A professional
writer and editor with a PhD in philosophy, he is the author of
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). His latest book manuscript, In
Defense of Logic,
is undergoing revisions. He works out of Columbia, South Carolina.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com