Rightwing postmodernism

by John Quiggin on March 4, 2020

Next week in Brisbane, I’ll take part in a debate/dialogue with Stephen Hicks, a North American philosopher, who has criticised postmodernism from a right/libertarian perspective. He’s on a tour of Australia, and was invited to Brisbane by Murray Hancock who’s setting up The Brisbane Dialogue which has the ambitious objective of promoting civil discussion across political divides. I ended up being dobbed in (is this an Australianism?) to present the other side, and chose the topic “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”. Longterm readers of my blogging won’t be surprised: I was making this claim as far back as 2003. Thanks to Kellyanne Conway and “alternative facts”, I’ll have plenty of material to work with.
I plan to argue that in the absence of any objective correspondence to reality, it’s the truths favored by the rich and powerful that will win out, not those of the oppressed. Trumpism is the obvious illustration of this, but rightwing postmodernism on issues like climate change and creationism long predates his rise.

Still, I have a couple of problems. First, I’m not a philosopher, so I’m working with a pretty simmple interpretation of postmodernism, roughly stated as “there are multiple truths, and no one is better than another” More precisely, as I encountered it, postmodernism involved a Two-Step of Terrific Triviality, putting forward statements that encouraged the simplistic interpretation most of the time, but, when challenged, retreating to into total obscurity, or else into something more nuanced and not very interesting like “there may be an actual truth of the matter, but we can never know it for sure” . But is there a better interpretation of postmodernism, one that is both interesting and comprehensible?

My second problem is whether constructive dialogue on a topic like this will prove to be possible. I think we’ll agree at least on not liking postmodernism, and probably on some of the intellectual history. I have no idea, though, what Hicks thinks about Trump and Trumpism, or for that matter about climate change and science in general. I’ll see how it plays out.

{ 89 comments }

1

Yoyo 03.04.20 at 8:58 pm

1 “Truth is inextricably linked to social place and indentity”

2

Sean Carroll 03.04.20 at 9:00 pm

I think this is not a very good definition of postmodernism! Better would be something like “suspicion toward grand metanarratives.” Postmodernists want to undermine grand theorizing that purports to give a final answer to large questions, usually in the contexts of language, culture, arts, morality, metaphysics, social theorizing, etc. Less so for the hard sciences, though of course there are exceptions. They want to argue that claims that seem objective and true are often riddled with subjective presuppositions.

I think you can be the world’s most committed postmodernist and still accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, at least under semi-charitable readings of the term.

The pro-postmodernism argument would be that the movement didn’t usher in the current age of bespoke belief systems, it simply diagnosed it, with frightening prescience.

3

John Quiggin 03.04.20 at 9:23 pm

“The pro-postmodernism argument would be that the movement didn’t usher in the current age of bespoke belief systems, it simply diagnosed it, with frightening prescience.”

I plan to make that point, as regards some postmodernists (Baudrillard seems like a good example for me). I think there are others for whom the rise of bespoke belief systems was seen as a good thing, at least until the political right got in on the act.

4

Johan 03.04.20 at 9:28 pm

I found this essay interesting, on Trump as the first postmodern president:
https://thefederalist.com/2017/01/23/donald-trump-first-president-turn-postmodernism/

5

John Quiggin 03.04.20 at 9:29 pm

“suspicion toward grand metanarratives.” The obvious examples, for me, are Marxism-Leninism and neoliberal triumphalism. But I don’t need postmodernism to be suspicious of these – the advocates of these metanarratives made confident predictions that turned out to be drastically wrong.

6

Joseph Guillaume 03.04.20 at 9:39 pm

As someone who at times identifies as leftist and postmodern, I would argue that the ideal of postmodernism shares a socialist ideal – given the idea that objective truth does not exist or is not attainable, it recognises that truth is subject to capture by the powerful and by specific modes of knowledge production, and that special attention is needed to give voice to the lived experience of the wider population, otherwise democracy is threatened.
The obvious weakness is that we don’t have the institutions in place to support this, and in absence of those institutions, deconstruction of expert authority leaves a vacuum that authoritarianism can fill.
Rather than tackling postmodernism directly, I would suggest engaging with the concept of post-normal science as argued by Ravetz, Funtowicz and others.

7

Norbert 03.04.20 at 10:19 pm

PM also hets some oomph by correctly noting that many have over hyped the “scientific method” as an infallible source of truth. There is no such infallible method, despite what many scientists publically say (at times). The process of knolwedge accumulation is bery messy. The oft cited claim that Science (always with a capital S) tells us… is a sure way of inviting skepticism. It is also either vacuous or false. PM has highlighted this fact, and though it does not mean that there is no truth, it does mean that finding it and defending it is a messy particularist business.

8

Leo Casey 03.04.20 at 11:16 pm

There is a lot of space between the position that there is one Truth (with a capital T), which corresponds to one objective reality, and the position that there are multiple truths, anyone of which is just as good as another. For example, a written text such as a book is clearly open to a number of different, plausible interpretations (it would be very foolish, for example, to say that there was only legitimate way to interpret/understand Hobbes’ Leviathan), but the notion that all interpretations would be equally valid (such that a reading of Leviathan as an argument for communitarianism is just as valid as a reading of it as an argument for liberalism), and there are no grounds for giving some priority over others, is not sustainable. If society is at least analogous to a text, if not the actual product of discourse, then it follow that there could be a range of plausible ‘truths,’ but that not every ‘truth’ is plausible. The weakness of most arguments against post-modernism (which often becomes a residual category for the theorists the critic does not like, from Foucault and Derrida to Rorty and the late Wittgenstein) is that they are exclude the middle between those two poles, assuming that there is only one of two choices — a world in which there is a single ‘truth,’ that corresponds to some objective reality, and a world in which a multitude of ‘truths’ are all equally valid.

9

BZ 03.04.20 at 11:30 pm

Josh Marshall wrote an essay on George Bush as the Post-Modern President back in 2003 too.

https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/september-2003/the-post-modern-president/

10

Another Nick 03.04.20 at 11:43 pm

Modernism is about ‘death of the old’

Postmodernism is about ‘nothing really dies’

Eg.

A modernist art gallery is only interested in showing the latest schools of thought

A postmodernist art gallery will mix and match anything from any era

11

Dave Maier 03.05.20 at 12:13 am

Re: your second problem, I have my doubts. I am familar with Stephen Hicks, and his main book on the subject is facile crap. A dialogue between a lousy philosopher and a non-philosopher (however sensible) on what are after all rather subtle philosophical ideas could be gruesome. Be careful.

I have a couple of (non-technical) blog posts you might (conceivably) find helpful; the first title is self-explanatory, and the second has some reflections on anti-postmodern polemic and Holbo’s “twostep” (although I don’t use that name). Best of luck.

https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2017/10/why-science-critics-shouldnt-be-postmodernists-and-vice-versa.html

https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2018/07/the-paradox-of-polemic-and-related-interpretive-phenomena.html

12

Ebenezer Scrooge 03.05.20 at 12:18 am

“Suspicion of grand metanarratives.” I think this was noted a few centuries earlier by Fast Eddie Burke.

13

Andres 03.05.20 at 12:23 am

“First, I’m not a philosopher, so I’m working with a pretty simple interpretation of postmodernism, roughly stated as “there are multiple truths, and no one is better than another””

Hi John. That is at best a vulgarization of postmodernism and wrong reading at worst, though I have no doubt that a lot of lazy adherents to postmodernism argue this way. And Trump is not a postmodern president but a throwback to demagogues and dictators of antiquity, while Fox News is simply a blue-tinged version of Pravda, an old phenomenon.

My quick and dirty summary of postmodernism involves the following:

1. Reality/truth is a many-sided beast, so that a theorist with one point of entry can come up with a radically different perception of truth than another even if the process of reasoning is consistent and verified by different data. This does not deny that there are wrong interpretations of reality based on either inconsistent or incomplete reasoning (which runs afoul of falsifying data) or violations of theorizing guidelines such as Occam’s razor.

2. Knowledge is not foundationalist in the sense that it has no firm starting point such as scripture, rationalist axioms, or a postulated independence between empirical theory or data. In reality, the “data” and “theory” are in a perpetual process of modifying each other, and the accumulation of knowledge is better thought of as a moving process such as swimming or riding a bicycle, where contradictions in existing theory vs. data give birth to new theory and modify old theory.

3. Social reality is not foundationalist or essentialist. i.e. social reality is neither materialist, where class structures and intellectual hegemony are caused solely by the reality of production and subsistence. Nor is it idealist, where the theories of a few thinkers determine the current social structure and any changes therefrom. i.e., a postmodernist sees history as a process where contradictions in material conditions vs. ideology/religion/political philosophy drive each other.

4. Similarly, social processes are in no way foundationalist. Postmodernism rejects the two extremes of methodological individualism (that macro outcomes are purely passive sums of individual decisions) and methodological structuralism (that individuals are compelled by wider social forces so that choice is an illusion). Note that neoclassical and Austrian economics are associated with methodological individualism, but this correlation is not pre-ordained. Similarly, dogmatic Marxism-Leninism hews to methodological structuralism, but this is also not pre-ordained. Marx was certainly not a crude methodological structuralist, even though he did indulge in overarching narratives.

4. Cause-and-effect explanations (including the mathematical models that economists are so fond of) are incomplete depictions of social change, and will therefore be potentially misleading at best (if they fit the _current_ data) and wrong at worst (when they suddenly don’t fit reality as previously happened). This is because in the real world there is no such thing as an exogenous variable. Not only is there often two-way feedback between causes and effects, but the causes and effects always act to change the external social and physical totality, which feeds back on both. A long-term view of history thus sees processes as constituting each other rather than causing or influencing each other in any ranked manner.

As an aside, the term postmodernism is way too fancy for my liking, and I prefer to call it something like philosophical skepticism (not ancient Greek skepticism, but rather skepticism of overarching philosophical constructs that claim to create received truth).

For a postmodern Marxist rejection of Marxism-Leninism, see chapters 1 and 2 (skip the introduction) of http://digamo.free.fr/wolffresnick06.pdf.

There’s no comprehensive “insider” postmodern critique of standard economics that I know of; probably the nearest is GLS Shackle’s Epistemics and Economics (e.g., see https://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/conference_papers/newschool/Papaer_GLS_Shackle_Studentship.pdf ), though that is mainly focused on the way that fundamental uncertainty invalidates both objective knowledge and methodological individualism and thus undermines the ground-up conception of neoclassical economics.

14

Dave Maier 03.05.20 at 12:31 am

Also, if you need another example besides Ms. Conway, the guy mainly responsible for “Pizzagate,” one Mike Cernovich, has explicitly stated that in spreading disinformation in the way he does, he takes himself to be following in the footsteps of the postmodernists he learned about in college (Wikipedia says he has a B.A. in philosophy).

15

Fake Dave 03.05.20 at 1:17 am

I think post-modernism was always an ideology of affluence. From day one, it’s main adherants have been the bobos — bourgious bohemians — who fused high ideals and basic hedonism into a single platform of total liberation from an oppressive moral order. We can see it in the Parisian intellectual elite with their drugged out sex parties and underage lovers, in “swinging London” and John Lennon’s fur coat collection (“imagine there’s no money,” indeed), yoga, self-help books, magic water, and endless consumer fads of the New Age “movement.” Not to mention thousands of rich kids getting high and playing dress-up at Woodstock, Glastonbury, Dead Tour and Burning Man.

The working class left has never been able to get on board with that kind of self indulgent cult of the individual (“self-actualization”, “wellness,” “empowerment,” etc.) because we rely on functional social institutions to hold our fractured communities together. It’s a lot easier to “drop out” and join the counterculture if you’ve got tenure or a trust fund. The rest of us have to act “respectable” to get any respect.

16

dilbert dogbert 03.05.20 at 1:31 am

MMMMM?
Premodern
Modern
Postmodern
Schrodinger’s Modern.

17

Gabriel 03.05.20 at 1:43 am

I assume you are going to include the famous ‘Postmodernism Journal Meltdown Edition’, where you can read in realtime a bunch of noted PoMo scholars suddenly realizing that their philosophy was having much more of an effect on the Right than the Left? I remembering reading and discussing it in grad school, but it’s been so long that I don’t even remember which journal it was, much less the issue. But someone in your grapevine should be able to pinpoint it for you, as it was famous enough to be referenced in both my Culture Studies and Folklore coursework.

18

Alan White 03.05.20 at 2:10 am

From having taught Kuhn for many years, I’d say his view of science is postmodernist in the best sense as carefully argued by historical example, data-based, and reflective of the social nature of the scientific process. While his overall assessment of the nature of scientific truth is that it is fluid over time, it also is tempered by adhering closely to replicated tests and susceptible to abandonment through falsification, with precepts of simplicity and consistency thrown in as essential parts of its social enterprise. And all that is consistent with the fact that it produces hard-won successes that anybody has to acknowledge: the technology that many people today literally could not live without (and I don’t mean smart phones, even if most people act as if that were true!).

19

Kiwanda 03.05.20 at 2:34 am

Possibly Hicks would agree with this discussion of post-modernism as it has influenced the far-right and the postmodern left. I would take some commonalities of the influence of postmodernism to be that both right and left:
– have a disdain for truth and the pursuit it, including historical and scientific;
– regard argument as nothing more than instrumental;
– view truth and morality as relative, grounded in social position;
– put primacy on identity categories and group rights, and little on the rights of individuals
(although right and left have inverted views of which groups should hold sway on matters of truth and morality).

Re “two step”, see also the motte and bailey.

20

Kiwanda 03.05.20 at 2:34 am

21

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 3:21 am

The definition of postmodernism is:

”a late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories”.

And so I produced for ALL of you -(and the meeting in Brisbane) the following piece of art

https://youtu.be/BnzXMRkBjMY

and if y’all don’t like it – what’s about singing along:

https://youtu.be/Fq2kPeOHvEM

22

Bob 03.05.20 at 3:23 am

I think Leo Casey @8 expresses the key point very well.

Some philosophers will from time to time get scientists all riled up by telling them, “You know what? Those PM idiots are saying that there is no truth!” But I think that if the scientists really understood what a philosopher like Richard Rorty means by this, they would be in agreement. The idea that there is some ultimate, final, true representation of reality, that our language can be purified such that we speak nature’s own language, is profoundly unscientific. How would we ever know when we were there? Did God leave Easter eggs with messages inside saying, “You’re here! There’s nothing to know after this!”

All we have are descriptions of the world that can be either true or false. The descriptions of science are more detailed and complex than our everyday descriptions, but that’s all they are. Sometimes it’s easy to get agreement on the truth and falsity of descriptions (“It’s raining outside.” “No it’s not.” “Let’s go to the window and find out.”), other times it’s more difficult. But this is as good as it gets as far as knowledge is concerned. There is no pure or absolute frame of reference from which to view the world. I think most scientists would agree with that.

Rorty quipped, “Take care of freedom and the truth will take care of itself.” By this he means that if we keep the conversation going, that if we allow lots of descriptions to vie with each other, if we have lots of discussion about what might make a description true or false, then we will find the description that is best suited to help us “cope” (Rorty’s preferrred word) with whatever challenge is presenting itself.

23

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 3:34 am

AND as a famous Dadaist myself – I consider the following the most important introduction to postmodernism:

”Postmodernism as Neo-Dada

At the heart of postmodernism lies the assumption that most of the things that we take for granted are, in fact, simply illusions. Reality is not reflected within text, only text is reflected within text. There is no Truth beyond the experience of the text, and meaning is created every time the text is experienced. An author does not place meaning in the text, and his/her interpretation of the text is no more valid than any other (Baudrillard 1981; 1988; Connor 1989; Lyotard 1984). In other words, meaning is arbitrary, relative, and subjective. Language is, in its own way, reality. What we refer to as reality is not knowable, and we live in the illusion that we are in touch with it. The age in which concepts have a relation to reality is over (Baudrillard and Debrix 1995). Knowledge is only validated when it is referred to by second-level discourse (Lyotard 1984).

With a slight variation in terminology, all of the above statements are exactly the same as the basic premises of Dadaism, a movement that took place in Europe over seventy years ago. Dada was an art movement that occurred primarily in Europe, beginning in Zurich. Although the endpoints are a bit fuzzy, it began around 1915 and lasted until about 1925, when many Dadaists joined the surrealist movement (Bollinger and Verkauf 1975; Dachy 1990; Richter 1965). Although primarily associated with visual art, Dada included writers, critics, and philosophers (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967).

In essence, the Dadaists believed that meaning is arbitrary, relative, and subjective (Rubin 1967). They “realized” that language signified nothing and, as a result, could be manipulated in any way desired (Richter 1965). Dada was a major force in Europe (particularly France), where a great deal of intentionally annoying and provocative visual art, literature, poetry, performance art, and music were produced in its name. The Dadaists had a profound effect on European culture as a whole, and many of them continued to remain in the public eye into the 1960s and even 1970s (Sanouillet 1996). Most of the French Dadaists in particular were writers and literature critics (Richter 1965), and the major focus of Dada in general concerned literary and philosophical problems (Sanouillet 1996).

Like postmodernism, Dada arose as a movement of reaction specifically against the whole rationalist tradition of Western thought (Rubin 1967). As Tzara put it, “Dada places doubt above everything” (Sanouillet 1996: 226). They sought to transcend the bourgeois concepts of society and history (Starr 1984). The Paris Dada movement in particular (from roughly 1919 to the early 1920s) dealt very specifically with language. It was primarily an anti-art philosophy of art, an anti-philosophy philosophy (Richter 1965). Postmodernism, of course, is an anti-theory theory and anti-philosophy philosophy.

Dada died a rapid death due to internal divisions and disagreements amongst its followers, and because once the initial statement was made, there was nothing left to say (Richter 1965). The followers of Dada were actively critical and opposed to anything that smacked of reason or convention. Almost immediately, this caused their demise. One cannot establish a philosophy that is opposed to philosophy and to being established. There was nothing left to do but quit. One can see the same potential problems in the future for extreme postmodernism, which has followed most of the same philosophical steps as the Dadaists”.

24

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 3:42 am

AND I really hope the following doesn’t get ignored or deleted again –
AS:

”Hans Arp once said1 “…we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men’s minds” (Richter 1965: 25). He, like many Dadaists, believed that the establishment would use visual art as a way of creating a particular version of reality. This would be possible only if art remained static, if art was allowed to maintain its unimpeachable aura. They concluded that art should be participated in, rather than simply looked at. Baudrillard has expressed precisely the same claim about television: the fact that we observe television (rather than interact with it) literally “deadens” our minds; it is the opiate of the masses. (Baudrillard 1981, 1988: 169-177; Connor 1989).
Ball said that an organic work of art (or text) has a will of its own; the creator has no primacy over the meaning of the work, and the art exists only in the experiencing of it (Richter 1965). The idea that it is the viewer or reader who creates text, rather than the artist or author, is a central premise of postmodernism (Baudrillard 1981; Connor 1989; Fraser and Nicholson 1990; Lyotard 1984).
Brisset attributed to language a consciousness, and referred to language itself as a “game”. Meaning within words was completely dissociated from objects. That is, he believed that language no longer relates to a concrete reality, but only to a surface reality created by language itself (Richter 1965). Baudrillard (1981) talks of the word losing meaning in a society where everything is ideological. Similarly, Breton stated that “All we look at is false” (Richter 1965: 173). Lyotard discusses in length the idea that we are now totally separated from truth and reality, that the postmodern condition is characterized by continually changing language “games” (1984, 1995).
Richter himself states that “Fatalism and rejection of life … are reactions to a world which has become even more lunatic than it was. There seems no prospect of returning it to normality.” (1965: 203). This predates by over 50 years Baudrillard’s description of the “catastrophe” that has occurred in our culture, but Richter was writing about the post-WWI era. Richter (1965) makes reference to the “empty existence,” the “vacuum” that symbols held once repetition had drained them of meaning, the obvious blueprint for Baudrillard’s argument about the “implosion” of information and meaning (1988). In fact, Baudrillard actually describes “postmodernity” as “…the immense process of the destruction of meaning…” (1993: 38).
The Dadaists held a strong resistance to absolute artistic and moral laws (Richter 1965). They believed that there is no absolute Truth, no concrete Reality, only relative truth and experienced reality. Lyotard rejects “totalizing narratives” and Truth (Lyotard 1984; Kellner 1990). “Postmodernity” is a time characterized by irrationality, play, indeterminacy, and situated or arbitrary truth (Kellner 1990). According to the Dadaists, the 1920s were a period characterized by irrationality, indeterminacy, and situated or arbitrary truth, in which only play merited pursuit (Richter 1965).
There are many other striking fundamental similarities between Dada and postmodernism. Both stand in opposition to Culture (Connor 1989; Richter 1965; Youngblood 1989; Zurbrugg 1994). Both claim and assume an alliance with “the masses” or “the workers”, and both completely fail to receive this alliance in return (Richter 1965; Hall 1986). Both take as their basic starting point the rejection of and disregard for philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, established order, and the Absolute (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967; Connor 1989; Kellner 1990). Both are characterized by a resistance to rationalization (Halley 1982; Kellner 1990). Perhaps most significantly, the single tie that most binds Dada and postmodernism (and is referred to frequently by secondary sources on both movements) is the intensely self-reflexive activity that characterized the Dadaists (Richter 1965; Rubin 1967) and characterizes many postmodernists (Connor 1989; Kellner 1990)”.

25

James Grimmer 03.05.20 at 5:24 am

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11191-010-9232-4

Here is something that gets at how “intelligent design” or creationist figures in the United States used so-called “postmodernism” to advance an anti-evolution agenda in the 2000’s.

Robert Pennock is a very solid philosopher of science with a clear sense of what can be done with “postmodern” resources to serve right-wing ends, and he wrote a book back in the day that is quite philosophically sophisticated about all of this:

https://www.amazon.com/Tower-Babel-Evidence-against-Creationism/dp/026216180X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2VYOGKC0THN55&keywords=tower+of+babel+pennock&qid=1583385815&sprefix=mandelstam+%2Caps%2C183&sr=8-1

26

Bill 03.05.20 at 6:33 am

The work on economics and postmodernism might be something else to review. _Postmodernism, economics and knowledge_ and _Postmodern moments in economics_ are two relevant books. I don’t have my copies handy, but the latter I think has a useful intro that explains postmodernism. I remember the heated discussions about modernism and postmodernism when I was at university. I think history since then has shown the power of the postmodern insights.

27

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 6:58 am

And perhaps? –
as the – perhaps?
annoying? – ”Postmodernism as Neo-Dada”
has been posted.
Wouldn’t it be enjoyful to post one of my pieces of visual ”truth” too?

https://youtu.be/BnzXMRkBjMY

28

Hidari 03.05.20 at 7:12 am

I think any discussion of postmodernism that doesn’t begin with the assumption (which is correct) that postmodernism is dead (as clearly stated in the relevant Wikipedia article), is going to be fairly meaningless, both because postmodernism has been rejected (despite what some people state (obviously wrongly) there is no one, either on the right or the left, who openly proclaims Nietzschean epistemological relativism nor anyone who openly believes it (as would be proven by them living their lives as if it were ‘true’) and also because postmodernism has ‘won’ (there is no, or practically no, Western intellectual who doesn’t share Lyotard’s ‘hostility towards metanarratives’) as indeed, @3 makes clear.

One should always be very, very careful about ideological labels which are not brandished by the people being discussed themselves but only by their ideological enemies. Hitler would clearly have described himself as a National Socialist. Stalin would have proudly described himself as a Communist. But there is no conceivable way in which Trump would describe himself as a post-modernist, and, if someone was to explain it (in words of one syllable) he would vehemently deny that he was such a thing (and he would be correct). The same with Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu and the rest. Nor would the much maligned so-called ‘populists’ of the left (Corbyn, Sanders. etc.) describe themselves as postmodernists, and, again, they are right.

It’s not often that one finds oneself in agreement with Nastywoman, but her description of postmodernism is mainly correct. It’s an artistic (NOT philosophical) movement, which has its origins in Dada, certain aspects of which were re-emphasised and re-contextualised in in post-war art. In other words, modernism is, so to speak, parasitic on (aspects of) artistic modernism, and now that modernism is dead, so is post-modernism.

It’s true that there were certain French thinkers who (despite having a problematic relationship to post-modernism) in the post-war period, tried to enunciate a different philosophical trajectory than the increasingly technical and arid Anglo-American trajectory, but it failed (where are the Derrideans now?) and in any case, they are all dead (except for Badiou and he soon will be).

So: postmodernism is dead, it’s over, there are no contemporary post-modern thinkers, there are no contemporary post-modern politicians, and all discussion of this topic must begin with this assumption.

29

William Berry 03.05.20 at 7:39 am

I see this canard of “right wing postmodernism” all the time, and it makes no sense whatsoever.

Conservatives aren’t postmodern at all, unless postmodernism has been a thing for centuries. Which, you know, makes no sense whatsoever (TM).

The right wing attitude toward Truth has little to no genuine intellectual content. It is essentially the ego-centric relativism of the child.

You’re better than this, John. Please don’t argue for a right wing postmodernism. You’ll make Paul de Man rejoice and Derrida turn over in his grave.

Also: What Sean Carroll and others in the thread have said.

30

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 7:46 am

Ups –
I’m sooo stupid and didn’t see that THEart already was posted –
Please forget my silly repetition.

31

nastywoman 03.05.20 at 9:19 am

@29
”The right wing attitude toward Truth has little to no genuine intellectual content.

It is essentially the accidental Dadaism of the child”.

Wasn’t that – what I always tried to say?

Or as Jimmy Kimmel discovered it the other day – that his own daughter is just like Trump.

32

Tim Worstall 03.05.20 at 11:34 am

“I ended up being dobbed in (is this an Australianism?)”

I’ve heard it being used in London – more specifically, cockney – but more connected with police than anything else. To be dobbed in is to be informed upon to the Rozzers.

That there’s a cognate in Ozian doesn’t surprise, the source of some part of Australian is that cockney.

33

oldster 03.05.20 at 12:31 pm

Despite what the post-modernists say, there are some immutable, foundational truths, irrespective of standpoint, and one of them is that “dobbing in” is an Australianism.

34

Tm 03.05.20 at 12:49 pm

Andres and others are correct, Trump is a demagogue, not a postmodernist. We really need more sophisticated and empirically grounded analyses of contemporary fascism.

35

kinnikinick 03.05.20 at 1:05 pm

@29
Agreed. The difference between academic postmodernism and its right-wing mimic is the difference between “childlike” and “childish”.

36

Bram 03.05.20 at 1:46 pm

Hi John,

This may sound nitpicky, but I have a slight issue with your characterization of postmodernism as:

The vast majority of non-post-modernists will also agree to such a statement. The problem is that it is (almost) trivially true. There definitely are multiple truths: I am taller than my sister, I am taller than my cousin, I am shorter than my brother, I am shorter than the Eiffel Tower … Now I’m just talking about me and how tall I am relative to other people. It is easy to see how truths multiply immensely. Further, it seems plausible that no one truth is ‘better’ than another, given that we have no proper qualification of what ‘better’ would mean (more general? more useful? more elegant?).

A more precise characterization would be

This is something that most non-post-modernists deny. It cannot be true that I am both taller than the Eiffel tower and not taller than the Eiffel tower. I do think it is something that most post-modernists must agree to (unless they are fine with their position being a trivial one. FWIW I’ve met some self-proclaimed post-modernists who are fine with their position being trivial, cf. your reference to the Two-Step of Terrific Triviality)

As I said, it is nitpicky, but I find it makes a crucial difference. If someone tells me they are postmodernists, but they are ready to deny the CONTRADICTING truths characterization, I tend to agree with them on most issues in the area. If they endorse this claim, we tend to deeply disagree on most issues in the area.

Best,
Bram

37

bianca steele 03.05.20 at 2:10 pm

I’d offer the suggestion that postmodernism, if descriptive (this is what everyone actually does, if only on some level) is leftwing, and if prescriptive (this is how grown-up, ethical people behave in any good society) is rightwing.

38

Peter Erwin 03.05.20 at 3:41 pm

For what it’s worth, Meera Nanda has been writing on this subject as it pertains to India — specifically, ways in which right-wing Hindu nationalists have used ideas from postmodernist-influenced science studies, postcolonial studies, etc. to advance their agendas — since the mid-1990s; she even wrote a whole book about it in 2003 (Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India).

A useful summary of some of its themes can be found in this response [PDF] she wrote to commentaries on her book in the journal Social Epistomology; it includes some comments on similarities to conservative American uses of some of the same postmodernist themes circa 2004.

39

Peter Erwin 03.05.20 at 4:00 pm

One of the problems is that there are really (at least) two forms of “postmodernism”. One is the philosophical kind that John is interested in, found in areas like critical theory, the Strong Programme of science studies, and so forth. The other is a movement in the arts and literature, including architecture, which is what Another Nick and (especially) nastywoman are discussing. There are some tenuous connections between the two, but they’re not that similar.

40

bianca steele 03.05.20 at 6:01 pm

I probably should add to my comment that I’m not thinking primarily of the physical sciences, or of those postmodernists (if they exist) who believe science has no real way of getting objective reality significantly involved in the process.

Those who take it for granted that nearly everything except science is a matter of opinion, culture, etc., and believe this isn’t disputed by anyone sane, will probably be less likely to find postmodernism interesting. Those who think statements about politics and so on are meant to be indisputable truth on the order of f=ma might.

41

jdkbrown 03.05.20 at 6:08 pm

For an introductory philosophical treatment, you should have a look at the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/

42

Hidari 03.05.20 at 6:30 pm

@33 Yeah but even here it’s more complicated than that. The Strong Programme is not usually called (or accused of being) ‘postmodern’ and in any case (as they themselves proclaimed) they were far more influenced by the later Wittgenstein than any French thinker. To the best of my knowledge neither Foucault or Derrida or the rest ever described themselves as being ‘postmodernists’ and the only one who discussed it openly (Lyotard)

a: was more influenced by (again) the later Wittgenstein than post-structuralism and
b: certainly wasn’t saying that postmodernism was a wholly good thing.

Critical theory derived more from Adorno et al and ‘indigenous’ thinkers like Raymond Williams than post-structuralism, and when it did draw on the French tradition it was from thinkers like Althusser who, being a Marxist, was obviously no post-modernist.

‘Postmodernism’ in the Anglo-American post-war tradition is normally just used as a synonym for epistemological relativism, generally ignoring the fact that this radical form of epistemological scepticism literally goes back to the Greeks (one could certainly make a case that Cratylus, Carneades and Arcesilaus were ‘post-modernist’ in this sense, and I’m sure that there will soon be some prick at the Guardian who’ll write a stupid column blaming Trump on Cratylus). It might be ‘wrong’ in some absolute sense but there is absolutely nothing new about this viewpoint and radical scepticism is absolutely integral to the Western philosophical tradition. One often finds centrist or right wing philosophers hinting or implying that every single Western philosopher believed unambiguously in objectivism until Jacques Derrida, but that’s just bullshit. But then most of these ‘debates’ are just an excuse for white middle class males to shout at each other. 300 years ago they’d have been fighting duels. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

43

Peter Dorman 03.05.20 at 6:46 pm

What has struck me about the rise and decline of postmodernism is its combination of non-novelty and perceived sense of overturning the social order. On the one hand, as soon as one gets beyond the hieratic style style of discourse, it becomes clear that postmodernism’s insights are commonplace: there is no certainty in our understanding of the world, grand theories that claim to explain everything are far too presumptuous, and in any case we should entertain multiple theories whenever exploring some new problem, and the different ways we frame our understanding through language, art, patterns of communication, etc. have deep effects on how we interpret the information that comes our way (and what information we seek out, and what we think information consists of). These bits of wisdom were not discovered in the last half-century or so; they can be found in myriad forms in most cultures and most times. Meanwhile, the “mood” of postmodernism is radical and rebellious: we are showing the emperor has no clothes, that the dominant order is an illusion of mirrors, the resistance is all around us, unseen until now, capable of ushering in a new world.

I take this to be, on some emotional/cognitive level, a fallback position of (some) intellectuals in response to the collapse of the Marxist dream in the 1970s. First the revolutionary wave of 1968 was beaten back, then Marxism as grand theory was mortally wounded by critics on the left, many of whom were renegades from the sect. The response was to denounce all meta-narratives and claims to Truth, and to redefine the radical struggle as the extrapolation of the rejection of Marxism to all beliefs and ideologies current in the modern world. The psychological consolation of materialism (it’s not just in your head, actually your head is just catching up with what’s already out there) was transferred to some “objective” notion of a postmodern condition. We think this way because that way of thinking is the actual state of the world.

Of course, substituting the postmodern condition for Marxist materialism meant the prime mover of history was now understood to be the evolution of mental and perceptual frameworks—the cultural turn. Institutions, technology, and the distribution of economic resources were all seen as epiphenomenal: what was really radical was, say, analyzing a recent spate of Hollywood movies to identify the fault line between representation of the postmodern condition and the hegemonic culture’s attempts to suppress it.

I think the premise of the Brisbane debate is too either/or. Postmodernism proved to be protean: by defining itself negatively, against overreaching claims of Truth and How the World Works, it left itself open to having its positive agenda appropriated by any perspective that was willing to work within these strictures. Austrian economics has been put forward as a form of postmodernism (Foucault was moving in this direction at the end of his life), although the market process it embraces is certainly vulnerable to a critique of its presumptuousness. I recall from graduate school the attempt of Wolff and Resnick to found a postmodern Marxism on the basis that all frames are arbitrary, so let’s arbitrarily pick the frame of “the working class” and run with it. I think a case can be made that identity politics represents another such appropriation: if truth is subjective, and identities have a shared subjectivity, then each identity has its own truth, and those outside it have nothing to say—their role is to simply listen.

If my historical interpretation is substantially right, the road from postmodernism lies in the reconstruction of a positive, compelling left political framework, one that’s analytical but open-minded about understanding and changing society and also effective enough that supporting it seems worth doing. Then the assertive negativity of “no truth, no theory, no shared understanding” will feel purposeless.

44

novakant 03.05.20 at 7:44 pm

There have been a few really good posts above and my old CompLit self might add its 2 cents later, but what hasn’t been mentioned is that Hicks is not a serious academic and apparently the source of much of Jordan Peterson’s vitriolic nonsense – so I don’t think you can expect a serious or fair debate.

45

Paul Stankus 03.06.20 at 4:19 am

Norbert at 7: PM also [g]ets some oomph by correctly noting that many have over hyped the “scientific method” as an infallible source of truth. There is no such infallible method, despite what many scientists publically say (at times).

How many is “many” here? I’d like to see even _one_ example of a currently employed, working scientist who ever publicly said they had a method for an “infallible source of truth”.

46

John Quiggin 03.06.20 at 10:35 am

Interestingly, the Federalist piece cited by Johan @4, praising Trump’s as a postmodernist, has a cover date of 23 January, the day after Conway’s “alternative facts” statement. Given the standard US practice of putting cover dates later than the publication date, and the prominence of The Federalist on the US right. Conway might well have read this (at least if she put a bit of effort into her job). So, the general presumption that “Conway would never have heard of Derrida” may not be quite right – she might easily have learned a second-hand and distorted version of PM and decided to run with it.

47

nastywoman 03.06.20 at 1:57 pm

And Dear Prof. Quiggin

as Hicks argues that –
”postmodernism is best understood as a rhetorical strategy of intellectuals and academics on the far-left of the political spectrum developed in reaction to the failure of socialism and communism”.

and you have been ”dobbed” to present the (supposedly?) – other side that “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”.

Could you do me –
(”US” – a group of ”international… you can call US ”postmodernists” if y’all want”)
– the great favour – and go to a European bakery BEFORE the debate and buy a very creamy Schwarzwälderkirschtorte.

That would be very ”postmodern”!

And then –
just when Prof. Hicks will open his mouth the first time – give him the cake –
(AND we are willing to pay for the cake – beforehand – if you sent US your account information)

AND that would be very ”postmodern” –
-(and could motivate Prof. Hicks to write a book about ‘
”Postmodernism is best understood as the many layers of a traditional Schwarzwälderkirschtorte”)

48

nastywoman 03.06.20 at 2:07 pm

and – wait! –
NOT to be misunderstood – by suggesting ”giving him the cake” we really meant handing him the cake very… politely –
(as a present form US!)

AND it should be entirely up to him – if he wants to sink his whole face into the cake –
or just eat a little of it –
AND we can promise EVERYBODY will love ”postmodernism” from then on –

and there might even be a YUUUGE ”revival” in Australia.
-(which would help the European Bakery – I for so many month enjoyed in Sydney –
a lot!)

49

Raven 03.06.20 at 2:37 pm

As with the political wings in general, extreme right and extreme left have some commonalities. A tendency to abandon mere physical reality to pursue ideology is one. A tendency to totalitarianism is another. In this light, consider O’Brien’s lecture to captive Winston Smith in part 3, chapter 3, of George Orwell’s 1984 fits both:

‘… power is power over human beings. Over the body but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter — external reality, as you would call it — is not important. … We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’

Orwell was satirizing 1948’s Stalinist Soviet propaganda. However, lest there be doubt that the American right wing, specifically, has adopted this attitude, recall the George W. Bush “White House aide” (alleged to be Karl Rove, whose titles were Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff) interviewed by journalist Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

50

Tom Hurka 03.06.20 at 6:25 pm

I second the recommendation of the motte and bailey paper: It’s Nicholas Shackel, “The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology,” in the journal Metaphilosophy, 2005. It describes what JQ calls the “two-step of terrific triviality” with numerous examples, the analogy to medieval castles, and much hilarity (as I recall).

51

Hidari 03.06.20 at 10:04 pm

‘extreme right and extreme left have some commonalities.’

No they don’t.

The extreme centre and the extreme right, on the other hand…..

52

Mike 03.07.20 at 1:48 am

Stephen Hicks is an Objectivist. Randians seem to be split on the issue of Donald Trump, but the official line of the Ayn Rand Institute is that Trump is bad because he interferes with free trade and he’s a moron.

As an Objectivist, Hicks is committed to the view that everyone who isn’t an Objectivist is a “subjectivist.” He’s most certainly going to accuse you of essentially being a postmodernist because you don’t believe in an “objective” epistemology.

53

ph 03.07.20 at 7:07 am

An informed understanding of Critical Theory used to be required for English major undergraduates. I was fortunate enough to be taught by a professor who had degrees in Philosophy, Classics, and English. His approach included elements from Leo @8 and Andres@13. He taught that it’s easiest to understand post-modernism as part of skeptical tradition, which frees us from being bound too closely to classical skepticism.

I’m not sure how informed the audience will be but a few distinctions might be worth considering. At least one prominent post-modernist prof I had (and there were many) enthusiastically described post-modernism as a ‘way of life’ – almost as set of religious practices, and a way of living, experiencing and thinking about the world. So, post-modernism denies the stability of ‘truth’ and the existence of truth as anything but a construct dependent on cognition. Truth exists in the abstract, an imaginary place of stability. There are lots of variant forms advocated by different theorists. Some combination of objectivism, positivism and constructivism is probably the most useful set of tools for illuminating problems and questions obscured by pure objectivism. (Leo8)

The exchange, btw, might be fun for you, but for me would be a crashing bore. Like it or not, most of what is called post-modernism maps fairly well onto that set of tools known as ‘common sense’ – a fact so obvious to hard scientists that very few have much patience with the discipline. I disagree and find post-modern tools extremely effective (because I lack common sense?) in changing perspectives and revealing different lines of inquiry.

It’s about ontology, or a set of negotiations about ontology. We negotiate things that can be true and those which cannot, aware that too much time spent considering every angle can severely restrict the amount of energy spent on actual inquiry. Learning what objectivism, positivism, and constructivism are might be interesting and doesn’t take long, or a university degree. Research informed by post-modern tools is often first rate, novel, and entertaining. Lots of big words, however, so clarity and simplicity are musts if that’s your approach. Can’t imagine post-modernism being ‘rightwing’ or ‘leftwing’ as these terms don’t have much stability at all, even within the discipline of political science.

54

Hidari 03.07.20 at 8:07 am

@ 29:

Yeah I know what you mean, but it’s not entirely true. When Lyotard defined post-modernism as ‘hostility to meta-narratives’…well there was one particular meta narrative he had in mind wasn’t there?

The not-so-mysterious fact about most of the postmodernists is that, despite what the political Right would have you believe, few of them were particularly left wing. Looking at Baudrillard’s Wikipedia page, it reveals the interesting fact that he was one of the key cheerleaders for NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Derrida was a sort of anodyne vaguely left-wing liberal (slightly to the left of Blair, but only slightly). Lacan, to the best of my knowledge, never had any major political commitments (and he was in any case very different from the others). And Foucault was not quite as politically correct as his current admirers pretend, as this article in Jacobin makes clear:

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/michel-foucault-neoliberalism-friedrich-hayek-milton-friedman-gary-becker-minoritarian-governments

Indeed, Foucault is one of those authors whose reputation is such because of his early death: had he lived, he might well have made a turn to the hard neoliberal Right later on in the 1980s.

Kristeva and the others were ‘feminist’ in the slightly woolly French sense, which doesn’t seem to entail any commitment to political struggle. And so on.

As for the others, the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge was not particularly associated with any politics. Cultural Studies was, of course, ‘left wing’ but that’s because it drew extensively on Marxism both (paradoxically) the ‘humanism’ of the early Marx and the ‘post-humanism’ of Althusser…Althusser of course not being in any sense ‘post-modern’.

But in the sense that you mean, that there are actual right wing politicians in the West whose major political inspiration was post-modernism, who went into politics because (e.g.) of Lyotard or Foucault, whose key intellectual ‘touchstone’ is (say) Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’…yes you are right. These people simply do not exist, they never existed, and to pretend they did is a ludicrous misreading of intellectual history.

55

John 03.07.20 at 8:35 am

Has anyone checked out the outfits that sponsor the Brisbane Dialogues?
Most of them are quite right wing and essentially true believers in the presumption that there is an objective reality “out there”, and/or that there is such a thing as Objective Truth.
John Anderson is quite right wing although he would probably disagree. Check out some of the people that he features on his website – Eric Metaxas for instance who is a first class “religious” nut case and an avid supporter of the Golden Haired Barbarian that now haunts the White House and the collective American psyche.
True Arrow is definitely right wing – it has sponsored Jordan Peterson and is planning an event featuring the deranged bloviator Brendan.
The Australian Institute For Progress features Judith Sloan (Dame Groan) who regularly scribbles for the Australia. And Graham Young who operates the appalling Online Opinion website – appalling because the comments section is dominated by right wingers.
Connor Connor is a right wing “catholic” publisher which is either owned by or has very close links with Opus Dei. Check out some of the authors that they publish some/most of the usual right-wing suspects that scribble for the Australian and Quadrant Magazine.

56

John Quiggin 03.07.20 at 10:14 am

John @55 I’m aware of all of these, and have debated quite a few of them in the past. I think I can hold my own. As I mentioned, the organizer. Murray Hancock seems to be quite genuine in seeking to promote dialogue, so I’m going to give it a go.

57

Matt 03.07.20 at 10:35 am

, the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge was not particularly associated with any politics.

He’s not literally a member of the Edinburgh school, but Steve Fuller is pretty close in spirit, and he’s a full-on supporter of teaching intelligent design in schools as just another valid narrative. Fuller is a hard guy to make out in some sense (unless it’s just an issue of who is writing checks – it may well be) but he’s certainly politically involved (testifying in court, etc.) for some political movements that are clearly right-wing.

58

Raven 03.07.20 at 11:52 am

Hidari @ 51:

extreme right and extreme left have some commonalities. [unsnipping: A tendency to abandon mere physical reality to pursue ideology is one. A tendency to totalitarianism is another.]

No they don’t.

Take Hitler’s and Stalin’s (1) ideological but unreal propaganda, and (2) murderous totalitarianism, as iconic examples of extreme right and extreme left.

59

SusanC 03.07.20 at 12:20 pm

An nteresting question raised upthread: do the postmodernism of the arts and the postmodrnism of philosophy departments have anything to do with each other?

Two refeences that may be relevant: walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, Lyotard, “The postmodern condition”.

As per Walter Benjamin, the invention of photography and cinema raise challenges for artists who are still trying to make a living sellng paintings etc.

As per Lyotard, another technological disruption changes philosophical thinking. The fact that computers exist, and serve important functions in our society, shifts the philosophical focus onto problems of computer languages, with implication for philosophical arguments that are firmulated using (non-computer) languages

60

Hidari 03.07.20 at 12:28 pm

@57

Steve Fuller is a dick of cosmic proportions: cf here:

https://crookedtimber.org/2006/03/27/if-there’s-a-war-please-direct-me-to-the-battlefield/

You are right: he’s probably more easy to locate on the right of the political spectrum than the left, although how much of this is just to ‘own the libs’ is a moot point.

But he’s not a politician.

61

SusanC 03.07.20 at 12:29 pm

As has already been touched on upthread, a substantial amount of postmodernism was explicitly anti-Marxist. When Lyotard talks about “skepticism towards metanarratives”, it is clear that Marxian theories of history are high on the list of things the postmodernists are skeptical about.

(Skepticism towards Hegel – one of Marx’s influences – is clearly in there too. So we can sort of count Kierkegard as an early postmodernist. If you want an example of a postmodern Christian apologist, Kierkegaard might be a reasonable choice…)

62

Orange Watch 03.07.20 at 1:54 pm

I’m disinclined to view the Trump administration in general as postmodern, nor Ms. Conway in particular. What she is, in a very pure sense of the word, is a sophist – and a rather adroit one at that. She’s not viewing reality as subjective; she’s viewing a restriction of her representations of reality to one fixed, consistent interpretation as rhetorically limiting, and thus unuseful. What she believes is not relevant to what she says; what her listener takes away from her speech is all that matters.

More generally, I’d be inclined to argue that looking at these sorts of utterances from a perspective rooted mostly in literary criticism’s understanding of epistemology is less informative than looking at it from a perspective more rooted in philosophy of language and/or linguistics’ understanding of speech acts. Many – perhaps even most – statements by putative rightwing postmodernists that are viewed as creating an alternative reality do not reflect the beliefs of the speaker; rather, they are performative statements structured for their impact on the beliefs of the listeners and the epistemic common ground of the conversation.

It’s rhetoric, not exposition.

63

bianca steele 03.07.20 at 5:17 pm

“An informed understanding of Critical Theory used to be required for English major undergraduates.”

This is true only for people under 50 or so, and as you point out, only for people in certain departments (though it’s escaped into the wild by now I’d think). Possibly commenters here skew older than that, and have personal and professional interests in different areas.

Theory combined with Marx, as many of them describe it, may amount to something other than relativism, but Theory combined with anything else would as well. Right now it seems to me a fairly standard set of assumptions such as “culture evolves,” “language is not always strictly referential,” and “society’s wishes can at times be more important than truth when it comes to what people actually do say.”

Supposedly anti-postmodern attitudes like Josh Marshall’s at the linked post, seeming to imply that anything that questions the motives or conscientiousness of people in power making decisions is “postmodern”, seems pretty interesting in itself. Some left leaning people appear to have tied themselves in knots over this.

64

bianca steele 03.07.20 at 5:25 pm

@54

I’ve been picking up Jameson on and off, and I wonder if postmodernism seems leftwing to English speaking students because they came to the theorists through him and through Eagleton (my own introduction to theory in the 90s after I was out of school), who view them through a Marxist screen, where it’s not always easy to see what is Marxism agreeing with postmodernism, what is Marxism correcting postmodernism, and what is Marxism saying where postmodernism went wrong (though that is in part my own frustration with their language talking).

65

bianca steele 03.07.20 at 6:44 pm

SusanC @ 61: “When Lyotard talks about “skepticism towards metanarratives”, it is clear that Marxian theories of history are high on the list of things the postmodernists are skeptical about.”

This wasn’t wholly obvious to me in the mid 90s. It was fairly rare in my experience at the time to understand Marxism as so obviously legitimate that skepticism about it would be notable. I read it into the discussion of whether progress was inevitable, which was a liberal metanarrative rather than a less blithely optimistic Marxist one. This also fits better with postmodernism as anti-science.

66

John Quiggin 03.07.20 at 6:54 pm

Over at my blog johnquiggin.com, Neil Levy points to an article Hannah Arendt and the contemporary social construction of conspiracy by Stephan Lewandowsky https://psyarxiv.com/fm8yg quoting lots of rightwingers saying very relativist things.

67

M Caswell 03.07.20 at 6:59 pm

What were Heidegger’s politics?

68

Orange Watch 03.07.20 at 7:14 pm

Raven@58:

Take Hitler’s and Stalin’s (1) ideological but unreal propaganda, and (2) murderous totalitarianism, as iconic examples of extreme right and extreme left.

This doesn’t demonstrate the similarity of the “extreme right” and “extreme left” so much as how woefully inaccurate and misleading it is to map politics onto a simplistic one-dimensional spectrum. You’re citing the similarity of left and right movements which are similar WRT their extremely authoritarianismrather than ones which are similar WRT their levels of extremity of individualism or collectivism according to either social or economic measures.

This is at best purely inane – when you define political extremism as characterized by being authoritarian, both extreme left and extreme right movements will of course share authoritarian characteristics. More typically it’s an extremely disingenuous excuse to declare that any movement away from social and economic centrism is a movement directly towards authoritarianism.

69

nastywoman 03.07.20 at 10:20 pm

So –
coming back to “Postmodernism as a rightwing philosophy”

Perhaps US Right-Winger – and most important 4chaner – turned postmodernism into a right wing philosophy?
As ”rejection of the concept of truth and denial of an objective reality and objective moral values and disregard for philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, established order, and the Absolute” – played so well in their – ”language as a game” – which – in the case of Clownstick might be completely un-intentional? – as (more than Conway) Trumps latest …words about the Virus – prove:

”People are really surprised I understand this stuff,” Trump said during a press briefing at the CDC. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”

“I think the 3.4% is really a false number,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday. “Now, and this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this.”

And in a meeting with health experts on Monday, Trump asked why doctors don’t just administer the flu vaccine to combat the virus.
AND
During Friday’s visit to the CDC, Trump bragged about having “beautiful” coronavirus testing kits, and claimed they were as “perfect” as the phone call that got him impeached.
And when asked about infected passengers on a cruise ship anchored near San Francisco, Trump strongly indicated that he cares about bad PR — in the form of a higher number of infected Americans — above all else.

So (accidental) Dada?

https://youtu.be/JaA1SI9hw2I

70

J-D 03.08.20 at 4:22 am

M Caswell

Wikipedia is not always a reliable source, but in this particular instance there’s no reason to doubt what it tells us, namely, that Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ceased active political involvement in 1934, and remained a party member until 1945.

But I assume you can read Wikipedia (and assess its reliability) just as I can, and conclude that you weren’t asking in an effort to elicit information. So why were you asking?

71

J-D 03.08.20 at 5:54 am

Has anybody else read Postmodern Pooh, by Frederick C Crews? It’s funny: funnier than not knowing where your honey has gone.

72

Hidari 03.08.20 at 9:29 am

I had a long response piece which seems to have been eaten by the interwebs, probably to everyone’s great relief. Suffice to say that the article @50 with its blowsy ‘I refute it thus!’ tone is one of the many reasons that people find Anglo-American philosophy so intensely irritating (as is demonstrated by the fact that so few people are interested in it). The discussion of Tarski in it is bollocks, incidentally.

73

Raven Onthill 03.08.20 at 1:23 pm

For what they are worth, a few perhaps-relevant thoughts:
1. Postmodernism in the arts comes ultimately from the architect Robert Venturi, who seems to have coined the word. It has meant a lot of things. For architects, generally, it is a disgusted reaction to the American 1960s “modernist” style – glass and steel boxes. (European and American modernist architecture are different. “Modernism” in architecture is in theory an attitude, or philosophy if you want to dignify it, rather than a style. In practice in the USA it has become associated with a style. European modernist architecture is much more varied than US modernist architecture.)
2. In philosophy opposition to postmodernism comes from various factions who see it as challenging their intellectual authority. Thus, Christians opponents dislike its criticism of clerical authority. Randians dislike its criticism of their claims to objectivity. Marxists dislike its criticism of Marxist theory. Scientists with, I think, a bit more justice than the abstract philosophers, are inclined to remind people that a virus can make you sick regardless of your beliefs.

Myself, I have long stood for what I like to call the bicycle theory of politics. I favor simple machines that get you somewhere. I don’t want to be riding in anyone’s tank, and I think if your politics needs tanks there’s probably something wrong with your politics. This is, I suppose, a modest postmodernist position.

Still want to see COVID-19 controlled.

74

bianca steele 03.08.20 at 4:47 pm

I was introduced only last week to the theory that “left” is literally defined as “collectivism”, and that this theory is not a ridiculous one associated primarily with the Ayn Rand, but eminently respectable. It goes against everything I know of history. Yet Orange Watch both believes it and abhors the idea of “alternative facts.” Busy, busy, busy.

75

nastywoman 03.08.20 at 5:32 pm

@73
”I don’t want to be riding in anyone’s tank, and I think if your politics needs tanks there’s probably something wrong with your politics. This is, I suppose, a modest postmodernist position”.

It’s not only a ”modest”BUT also a very admirable ”Dadaistic position” –
and by the way – my utmost favourite ”postmodern building in the world” –
is the Stuttgarter Staatsgalerie!
-(and you guys should duckduckgo it)

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SusanC 03.08.20 at 7:01 pm

As noted upthread, it’s well-known that Martin Heidegger was an actual Nazi. Not some kind of neo-nazi or labelled as such by his opponents, but an actual member of the Nazi party when that was a thing.

So: consider Heidegger a potential candidate for being a right-wing postmodernist. But: two pieces you need to make this argument work: (a) To show that Heidegger’s political thought is actually right-wing (rather than, e.g. he just joined the Nazi party because all his friends were doing it[*]) (b) That Heidegger is some kind of postmodernist.

I am sympathetic to the argument that (a) since at least Plato, philosophy has taken as one of its main goals the debunking of nonsense in political thought/rhetoric. (b) given that, for a philosopher to simply not notice the problems of Nazism is a serious failure as a philospher.

[*] With the possible exception of the Jewish girl he was going out with…

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Orange Watch 03.08.20 at 8:26 pm

bianca steele@74:

Perhaps if you weren’t so busy, busy, busy you could have taken the time to consider the context (or even content!) of what I wrote rather than apparently trying to score points in domestic American political disputes. If we are defining left-vs-right on a one-dimensional spectrum (which Raven absolutely was, and which you appear to be doing), we must actually have reasons to place movements at different points further left and further right. But what are the pertinent characteristics that decide the placements? Raven would place Nazi Germany on the extreme right and Stalinist Russia on the extreme left. Well and good. But why? It can’t be degrees of individual liberty, as both these extreme left and right movements are restricting that. It can’t be degrees of political democracy, as both restrict that. It can’t be social or political equality, as both are extremely hierarchical. It can’t be peaceful vs. repressive social and political systems, as both extreme left and right are repressive. It can’t really even be tradition vs. progress, as while the Nazis dressed some of their reforms in a rhetoric of return to old values, they were actually radically reforming society and in many cases loudly proclaimed as much. It can’t be internationalism vs. nationalism (which admittedly drifts close to the dreaded collectivism distinction of Rand), as both were nationalistic, albeit with the Soviets hiding theirs under internationalist rhetoric. Populism vs. elitism fails as well for similar reasons; both are elitist movements using populist rhetoric. It can’t be racial equality vs. racism, as both regimes were certainly racist, again with Soviets professing otherwise. It can’t be gender equality, as while the Soviets were comparatively progressive on this front, they were hardly extremely progressive, and likewise Nazi repressiveness.

So what left vs. right are we left with? Pretty much intentionally poorly defined economic “liberty” is the only thing we have if the spectrum is in fact a spectrum with a center and extremes rather than two unranked pools of ideologies. Hence why I chose to refer to this. If you have a better ranking mechanism than this that places Nazis and Stalinists as extremes on a neat, tidy one-dimensional spectrum, I’d love to hear it. I’m not seeing it, though. And that was the main thrust of what I actually wrote, rather than the caricature of beliefs you so uncharitably ascribed to me. Trying to make the full range of political ideologies distinct as groups according to a single dimensional spectrum is absurd, but if you try to do it, you need to chose a single measure to define where individual movements are placed on it. And there really isn’t one that neatly places Nazis on one extreme and Soviets on the other. The political theory Raven is implicitly advocating for is of course Horseshoe Theory, which is a breathtakingly disingenuous theory insofar as it advocates for a one-dimensional political spectrum while implicitly admitting there are at least two relevant dimensions. Not that Horseshoe Theory even works in itself – it wants to map politics onto a bent curve with democracy at the top and center, and “left and “right” authoritarianism at the two bottom ends… but then where does something like Iran’s Shah fit? Realistically, they go right into the gap where horseshoe theory posits nothing exists, and that of course draws into question why the one-dimensional arc is the only place ideologies can fall in this two-dimensional space – aside from the need to place the “center” both in the eminently reasonable moderate middle and on top, of course. So if your “reality-based” “non-alternative” political “facts” are just a lazy, cynical, manipulative “radical centrist” theory to reduce all politics to one (nebulous) dimension like Horseshoe Theory, spare me.

Disagreeing about political theory is not “alternative facts”, BTW. Theories are not facts – they’re closer to explanatory metaphors. This is extremely important to remember in political science where we deal with theories about theories about theories about theories about historical narratives rather than hard sciences who deal more in theories about facts, or at their worst theories about theories about models or observations. We’re getting a bit far afield, though.

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John Quiggin 03.08.20 at 11:22 pm

Susan @76. I had a couple of posts on this, back in the early 2000s https://johnquiggin.com/2002/11/04/heidegger-and-the-nazis/
https://johnquiggin.com/2005/06/04/heidegger-and-the-nazis-again/
This was before the publication of the “Black Notebooks” showed him to be an anti-semite as well as a Nazi (though too abstract and highflown for the Nazi Party to find him useful).

Bottom line

I don’t think the idea that the arguments of a political theorist or philosopher can be treated in isolation from their life and work as a whole is, in general, sustainable. There are exceptions to this: a philosopher might collaborate with a dictatorial regime out of fear or ambition, even though this was the opposite of the course of action implied by their philosophical views. But that doesn’t appear to be the situation foe Heidegger, Hayek or Sartre

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J-D 03.08.20 at 11:39 pm

If we are defining left-vs-right on a one-dimensional spectrum (which Raven absolutely was, and which you appear to be doing), we must actually have reasons to place movements at different points further left and further right. But what are the pertinent characteristics that decide the placements?

Not position in relation to some fixed theoretical construct, but position in relation to the other political parties with which it is competing.

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J-D 03.08.20 at 11:41 pm

SusanC

I genuinely failed to grasp that the point of M Caswell’s earlier comment was ‘Martin Heidegger is an example of somebody who could be considered a right-wing postmodernist’. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

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bianca steele 03.09.20 at 1:24 pm

Orange Watch @ 37

“Busy, busy, busy,” is s saying popularized by the novel “Cat’s Cradle.” It means, approximately, “wheels within wheels.”

If you want to persuade people that they were too quick to use harsh words against you, you’d be better advised (if you are interested in taking advice from me) not to respond by doing exactly what they claim you do. I fail to find any place in my comments that could be fairly described as “trying to score points in domestic American political disputes. Maybe you care about “alternative facts” only on subjects that interest you, and feel free to make things up on topics you personally feel are open for anyone to make things up.

If it is postmodernism that tells me I can safely ignore people in comments sections named “Orange Watch” who show no signs of being able to read what other people write (which is the only way what they themselves say could be worth reading), I’m all for it. If it means “the seriousness with which we should take a comment is in direct proportion to its length and the aggression it displays against its interlocutor, you may have it, and I’m sure the world will thank you for giving you the opportunity to display your prowess. Needless to say, your fluency, at 200 words, doesn’t convince me to despair that everything I know might be false. Sorry about that.

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SusanC 03.09.20 at 1:36 pm

In my experience, it’s mainly anthropologists that seem to really believe a strong version of relativism.

This may be something of a straw man, but I think it goes something like this. Looking at human cultures other than our own, we notice a near universal human tendency to believe stuff that is clearly untrue. While our own culture likes to believe itself exceptional in this regard, it is unlikely that we really are exceptional. The then conclusion is that what we take as scientific knowledge is likely mostly lies, quasireligious mumbo jumbo, and self delusion. I.m not to agree with this, but i encountered plenty of anthropologists who seem to be espousing it.

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Orange Watch 03.09.20 at 1:39 pm

J-D@79:

Your rephrasing is far less helpful than you think it is, not least because you’re not the one who made the prior argument and don’t apparently share the motives for making it. Again, to repeat my last-less-one comment, if the “extreme” part “extreme right” and “extreme left” merely means “more totalitarian”, it is utterly inane and wholly uninformative to observe as Raven@49 & @58 did that the “extreme” left and “extreme” right share totalitarian characteristics. Of course they do. Under the proffered definition of extreme it’s tautological that they do.

Your rephrasing does nothing to change this; comparing an otherwise undifferentiated mass of political parties on the left and right based on “how totalitarian they are” tells us nothing about how leftwing they are or how rightwing they are, which is which is precisely what horseshoe theory advocates propose. Trying to make their comparison relative rather than absolute does nothing to change the inanity of their observation, but it doesn’t even appear to be accurate. Since twosteps and mottes have been mentioned, I’ll strongly suggest you are currently taking it upon yourself to defend the bailey. Like many political (and economic) theories, horseshoe theory is as much if not more prescriptive as descriptive. The suggestion that extreme left & right parties are more similar to each other than to less extreme left & right parties is absolutely not meant to be an inane statement that totalitarian parties are totalitarian, nor is it meant to be a neutral observation of fact. It is meant as a call to extreme centrism, but by failing to admit how its political spectrum is ordered (centrism representing the theoretical construct of “liberal democracy”, and the polar opposite theoretical concept of “totalitarian autocracy”) it masks its ideology and purity politics as “moderation” and “pragmatism”. To be blunt, the actual extreme left/right criteria being used is a comparison of party rhetoric to abstract theoretical constructs of vague amalgamations of left and right as cohesive and comprehensive ideologies covering all possible ideological stances between them. This is the only way we get the horseshoe we’re supposed to without resorting to the aforementioned vague unranked ideological buckets and inane tautologies.

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Hidari 03.09.20 at 2:22 pm

One of the major things that irritates me about discussions about postmodernism is that few people bother to define it.

Personally I would go with Nastywoman’s definition (not everyday one gets to say that): as a primarily artistic movement that can trace its lineage back to Dada and Surrealism. Pomo was particularly productive in the visual arts and design, and it’s interesting that when the Victoria and Albert did a show about it, it was almost exclusively the artistic side they dealt with. They also pointed out that this artistic movement is now over, which it is.

Secondly (and rather differently) there is the French movement from structuralism to post-structuralism which was in no small way caused by the failure of May ’68 and the putative ‘failure of Marxism’ which cause a seismic shift in intellectual cultural life from one in which Marx and the Marxist tradition were the ‘cultural touchstones’ to one in which Nietzsche and Heidegger played that role. I should add that this ‘philosophical moment’ is now clearly, like artistic postmodernism, clearly over.

Finally there are various forms of relativism which, despite what is often implied, have been kicking around since the Ancient Greeks. What annoys me is that when Anglo-American philosophers generally speaking talk about post-modernism it is this tradition they are generally talking about. But there is nothing modern about this, or unusual or ‘anti-Western’. On the contrary it’s been on the go for thousands of years, it’s completely ‘indigenous’ so to speak to the Western tradition and it’s not even clear to me that many or most of the French philosophers in question actually were relativists in that sense. This tradition has always been around and always will be around because it’s arguments are, strictly speaking, irrefutable (or at least very difficult to refute convincingly) so this debate will run and run literally forever.

(One might add another tradition in the sociology of science that traces its lineage back to the later Wittgenstein, but this is not well known and has not been particularly influential).

You might ask: which one of these traditions has Donald Trump and the modern day Republican Party been influenced by? The answer is very simple: he and they have been influenced by none of them. And I know that because if he had been, he would have said so, but he hasn’t, so he isn’t.

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WLGR 03.09.20 at 3:03 pm

Too late to influence your dialogue with Hicks, but I can think of at least a couple angles that might be more productive to bring up than letting the discussion get bogged down in yet another round of semantic nitpicking over sloppy ideologically-motivated right-wing interpretations of Foucault Lyotard Baudrillard et al.

First, you could get into a kind of counter-history of how the idea of “postmodernism” has been interpreted over the past hundred years or so by right-wingers themselves, beginning with the anti-Semitic Nazi conspiracy theory of “cultural Bolshevism,” which postulated a grand conspiracy by the Soviet Comintern starting in the 1920s to attack and destroy good old fashioned Western Christian cultural values in order to undermine the moral foundations of countries like Germany and make them susceptible to communist revolution, a conspiracy that allegedly included modern avant-garde art/architecture/music/etc as well as Marxism-influenced social theorists like the Frankfurt School. In that telling, the right-wing view of postmodernism as an expression of “cultural Bolshevism” (which of course profoundly influenced the theory of “cultural Marxism” which reemerged among the US evangelical Christian right in the 1990s before gaining widespread currency among Alex Jones type far-right conspiracists, and has recently been pushed by alt-right adjacent figures like Jordan Peterson as “postmodern cultural neo-Marxism”) essentially objects to postmodernism as a kind of social-scientific expression of its overarching objection to Jewishness, a “rootless cosmopolitanism” insufficiently grounded in the firm blood-and-soil bedrock of traditional cultural values like sexual patriarchy and ethnonational exclusion.

Second, you could bring up Philip Mirowski’s take on the whole fake-news post-truth phenomenon, as an expression of Hayekian neoliberal ideology about the “marketplace of ideas”: basically the idea that no human being can ever understand how the world works anywhere near as well as the diffused cognitive power of the omniscient Market, which provides the neoliberals with their main line of attack against socialism (it inevitably fails because central planners can never know enough to out-plan the market) as well as a justification for why deception and misinformation are perfectly acceptable political tactics (since people are inherently stupid and ignorant compared to the market anyway, there’s no harm in accepting and nurturing that ignorance if doing so will ultimately help convince people to give up on the idea of collective political action and submit to the will of the market). Depending how any given right-wing intellectual hack decides to frame their objection to postmodernism, if they decide to object to it as an attack on the very possibility of truth or rationality or scientific inquiry or whatever, it might be useful to point out that the most influential form such attacks actually tend to take in practice is specifically to denigrate the human capacity for rational scientific inquiry in the name of the unfathomable, all but divine cognitive power of the capitalist Market.

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Andres 03.09.20 at 7:29 pm

For all the above comments, it still seems as if John will go into the debate with Hicks with a more-objective and reality based-than-thou approach. An attempt to label the right wing as post-modern loons might actually irritate Hicks sufficiently to make a mistake. Or he might simply laugh in John’s face. Either way it is rather disheartening.

Again, the biggest mistake the new philosophy made was labeling itself with a pretentious title like postmodernism when it was in fact simply the age-old resurgence of rebellion against absolutist philosophies and political theories. Buddhism/Jainism and the Chinese philosophies (Taoism/Confucianism/Mozi) could also have called themselves postmodernist based on their skepticism toward religion and nationalism, and I doubt anyone here will go out of their way to label these as extreme right-wing or left wing philosophies.

The point being that any murderous dictator or oligarchy of whatever stripe will need philosophers to say that that dictator/oligarchs are on the side of objective truth. Of course, the objective truth will be changed by means of creative accounting, historical revisions, purges and non-personhood, and more recently by a compliant Murdochized news media. But it will still be claimed to be objective truth, and attempts to label it as any sort of postmodernist or subjectivist discourse will simply be too wide of the mark to be an effective criticism. No philosophy justifying fascist, white supremacist, communist, or oligarchic neoliberal regimes will ever take to itself the label of postmodernist or subjectivist, for that would be taking a step to legitimizing political challenges.

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Andres 03.09.20 at 7:41 pm

Just to pile on to Orange Watch’s reaction to:

“Take Hitler’s and Stalin’s (1) ideological but unreal propaganda, and (2) murderous totalitarianism, as iconic examples of extreme right and extreme left.”

The writer apparently forgot that there was a significant (in head-count if not consequential terms) amount of conservative right-wing opposition to the Nazis in Germany. And a lot of Bolsheviks, including but not limited to Trotsky’s followers, fought ferociously against Stalinism. The pro-monarchical or pro-military German right-wingers (who did eventually try to kill Hitler, though much too late) could make a good case that the Nazis were never conservative in a right-wing sense. And the Trotskyists could also make a good case that Stalin was a fascist who draped himself in a red flag. To say that Hitler and Stalin were “extreme right” and “extreme left” says more about our hindsight-driven subjective preferences than it does about actual political beliefs at the time they were generating outcomes.

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Andres 03.09.20 at 8:17 pm

“Myself, I have long stood for what I like to call the bicycle theory of politics. I favor simple machines that get you somewhere. I don’t want to be riding in anyone’s tank, and I think if your politics needs tanks there’s probably something wrong with your politics. This is, I suppose, a modest postmodernist position.”

This is a good position to take, but it does bring about a certain degree of responsibility. The 20th century showed that a political bicycle that collides with an ideological tank will (a) scratch the tank’s paint and (b) leave a dark red splatter on the pavement, if you are the only bicyclist challenging the tank. Nor will it be sufficient to get out of the way and wait until the driver directs the tank over a cliff, as that may have global consequences. So self-consciously choosing to ride a political bicycle means that one has to confront the collective action problem, and find enough fellow riders to strew the road with enough bicycles to clog up the tank’s treads. This is why so many people choose to drive/ride the tank, cliff notwithstanding.

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Andres 03.09.20 at 8:50 pm

“I genuinely failed to grasp that the point of M Caswell’s earlier comment was ‘Martin Heidegger is an example of somebody who could be considered a right-wing postmodernist’. Thanks for clearing that up for me.”

Anyone could make that mistake. What’s more egregious is that you failed to realize that Kelly Anne Conway, Steve Bannon, Bill Barr, Mitch McConnell, President Tweety Bird, and even Stephen Hicks all have copies of Introduction to Metaphysics in their Kindles or coat pockets. :-)

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