About four years ago, I applied for a PhD program in a top university in a Brazilian city that will remain unnamed. Having spent all my life in the Brazilian educational system, I was very aware how prevalent the so called postmodernist writers were in my country’s colleges and universities.
People like Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and other French “intellectuals” are virtually worshipped as gods throughout the humanities. Personally, I have always been skeptical of the French intelligentsia, and that was part of the reason why I’d given up graduating in psychology — a field where, to my surprise, postmodernism was endemic. Eventually, I graduated in law, a subject that was comparatively free of the nonsense.
I had always been interested by philosophy (actual philosophy, not the French hocus-pocus), and in college I took a particular interest in legal epistemology, a topic that I would have liked to pursue. But after I graduated I was keenly aware that, if I decided to go on into an academic career, I would have to face the follies of postmodernism once more. While that was an unpleasant prospect, I decided that, at this point in my life, I was prepared to deal with (and argue against) the French. That was when I applied and was accepted into a PhD program on interdisciplinary epistemology. But what I found was not exactly what I expected.
I have been in this program for the past three years and, coincidentally, during that time, have noticed a growing interest in the postmodern creed. The insane events at Berkeley and Evergreen have brought to the forefront the topic of academic standards and free speech in college campuses, and the “Conceptual Penis” hoax has moved some to cast doubts over the integrity of the entire field of gender studies. Some people (most notably Jordan Peterson) point to postmodernism as the root cause of all this insanity.
Now, Brazil`s situation is not the same as what is being experienced in the US. There are some significant differences regarding campus culture and academic practices and I will talk a little about them. That being said, I believe that there are enough similarities between the ideological activists of both countries so that I can, at least, help explain the apparent insanity that is threatening to malign the US higher education system.
Since I am something of an intruder in this postmodern program — my beliefs and interests set me apart from my colleagues and professors — I can see things that are ignored and often taken for granted by the true believers. Things that, even if they did see, they would be hesitant to share with outsiders. On the other hand, years of exposure to their ideology has allowed me a comprehension that even the most prepared outside critics cannot achieve.
So, first of all, what is this postmodernism thing people keep talking about? If you ask a philosophy graduate, there is a good chance he will tell you that, while the word is applied by art historians to refer to some artistic movements, it is a made up term as far as philosophy is concerned — as every author normally associated with the term is so distinct from all the others that it makes using a single word to refer to them as group useless or even disingenuous.
But that is not exactly true. While there are several distinctions and divergences amongst authors, there is a single characteristic that is common to all postmodernists: they have very loose standards for valid justifications. During most of the history of philosophy, it was accepted that when you put forth an idea, you should argue for its validity. It was also common sense that the stronger the argument, the easier it would be convincing others of the idea’s validity.
The so called postmodernists had a different view on the matter. They apparently thought that all this arguing is too much of a hassle, so they decided to make it simpler by drastically lowering the standards of what should count as an argument. That is why you can find sentences such as: “It is the horizon itself that is in movement: the relative horizon recedes when the subject advances, but on the plane of immanence we are always and already on the absolute horizon.” (That is an actual sentence from What is Philosophy, by the French duo Deleuze and Guattari.) The first and most obvious thing about this sentence is how convoluted and apparently meaningless it is. But while there are ways by which one can navigate the jargon and find some meaning in these words, there is no justification for it; no argument to demonstrate that “on the plane of immanence we are on the absolute horizon.”
So that does bring up the question of why anyone would accept this type of thinking. Why have so many professors accepted that someone could dispense themselves from the burden of arguing their own ideas? Quite simply, if you do accept that Foucault or Deleuze’s ideas need little or no justification, then your ideas need little or no justification as well. And that is an offer many people would not (and did not) refuse.
This is a point that I believe has eluded most of the commentators and critics of postmodernism. It is not the case that Derrida and his ilk corrupted otherwise competent academics, what they did was set up a stage filled with smoke and mirrors where they themselves — otherwise irrelevant individuals — could pretend to be the great and powerful Oz; and others went along with it in the hopes that eventually they would have a place behind the curtain themselves.
I don’t mean to be too harsh. Most of my colleagues and professors are very good, decent people, whom I appreciate on a personal level. But it must be understood, especially by those opposing postmodern ideas, that it is not a matter of simply convincing gender theorists and post-structuralists to let go of their false beliefs and join the rational conversation — if these academics let go of the postmodern faith, they will have nothing left to justify their professorships and research grants.
I noticed that compared with my previous academic experiences, the lectures in my PhD program tend to be much more direct and clear. Possibly due to the strong selection bias (and possibly some self-selecting bias as well), the vast majority of the candidates shared the same political stances as the professors. Possibly for that reason, lecturers appear to be comfortable enough to drop (or at the very least, considerably simplify) the jargon and engage in an almost normal speech pattern.
Another point that I think is often neglected is that postmodern academics are not opposed in principle to debate; they are just very, very, bad at it. When addressing a group of converts, in general, a professor or a lecturer will attempt to use common sense, comprehensible arguments at first. That will normally go on without problems as most candidates already agree with the ideas being presented, but, eventually, someone (mostly myself) will disagree.
This may surprise some of you, but postmodern academics are virtually incapable of defending their ideas. In retrospect, that should be obvious; the French offered a set of rhetorical tools that would allow anyone to appear knowledgeable without actually having knowledge and avoid debate by hiding behind jargon and simple formulaic sentences — who would be more attracted by this offer than people who have a hard time with knowledge and debate?
Unfortunately for the postmodern activist, their main tool — epistemic relativism (the idea that truth is a construct dependent upon some subjective factor, such as one’s culture) may be efficient to silence opposition, but is nothing but a hindrance when attempting to actually coordinate with others to achieve something. That is obvious when we think about it: if all ideas have the same value, what would be the point of saying anything?
That is possibly why, at first, the usual anti-science and relativist discourses seemed conspicuously absent from the lectures I was in. In their places, raw, unapologetic party politics creeped out every now and then. Candidates and professors constantly confabulated on the technical aspects of political activism — especially on how to “politicize the poor,” which was a simple code for political propaganda for their party. Codes like that were very common: one particularly enthusiastic professor encouraged every candidate to “link their research with the worker’s cause,” which meant that every research should include criticism of the capitalist system, regardless of its actual subject.
But, as I learnt, that did not mean that relativism and anti-science rhetoric had been abandoned. You see, if scientific research is useful, the postmodern activist will gladly use it. It is only when scientific data is inconvenient that the notion that the scientific method is colonialist will be brought up.
As I said, Brazil’s situation is not the same as in the US. Intersectionality has just now started creeping out in the media and academia, and college campuses are part of a slowly bubbling debate on free speech. Still, in other aspects Brazil seems to be ahead of the postmodern curve when compared with America. Postmodern thought is prevalent from high school onwards and I am sure that it is at least part of the reason why, despite heavy investments in education and a growing number of college enrollments, Brazil’s education seems not to have improved at all in the last decade.
At the same time, my colleagues (many of whom are themselves teachers and professors) seem to be either completely disillusioned or aggressively radicalized. Those who either were or have become true believers have gradually moved more and more to the extreme, and they seem to have lost any residual interest in dialogue. While I do not want to claim that this change is only caused by their being influenced by the program (Brazil’s political situation has changed drastically in the last few years and that must have played some part), I am quite sure that it did not help having professors claiming that capitalism was the sole cause of all the problems and that everyone who did not share this belief was a dangerous enemy.
I would like to end this by telling anyone who is considering joining any program or field that is influenced by postmodernism, don’t. If you can, try another route. If you can’t — or are already in such a program and are having doubts — know that, despite the smoke and mirrors, there is just a person behind the curtains. And once you understand their techniques, debating postmodernists is really quite easy. But be warned: they may not like you after that.