My Experience in a Postmodern PhD Program

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.”

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What Is Philosophy?

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.

Lawrence Belluci

Lawrence Belluci is the pen name of the author.

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15 thoughts on “My Experience in a Postmodern PhD Program

  1. Bourdieu is no postmodern. He has huge blind spots in his theory because of his alignment with the left, but he tries to put forward some serious conceptual tools for sociology.

  2. An unapologetic French here, so you may imagine I’m going to have fairly strong opinions 😉

    There is a lot of truth in this article, but I’m afraid it doesn’t tell why postmodernism is so popular in social sciences and so effective at mobilizing the masses, with so little, real-life, or solid accomplishments to show for? That, in my view, is what everyone should be concerned about. After all, in an open, vibrant society, stuff that doesn’t work (let alone stupid stuff) should simply die-off.

    Also, and not because I have any fond memories of Mao/Trotskyst student unions, a lot of what took place in social sciences in France was only possible because of the structure of the French society. That also is left without the required scrutiny.

    So why is this happening now, in the US, in the U.K, Germany, Canada, all originally decentralized countries, and why it will corrupt the rest of the western world?

    But who cares, really.

    Last, but not least. The French economic elite is almost entirely trained with a very strong scientific background, the only known vaccine to PoS. Albeit we lost a few limbs in the process of reeducation, the society still *operates* (so to speak).

    In the US, UK, or Canada or any other libertarian country, where a random smuck graduating from humanities can run for high office, there is no vaccine at all. In that regards, Brexit is no surprise.

    Postmodernism will run unopposed, until it has destroyed all truths. That is its nature, and thus its goal.

    Enjoy life, while you still can.

  3. I’m from Brazil, went to undergraduate, masters and PhD in Social Sciences. This author’s warning is about 20 years too late. The Brazilian left, which overwhemingly controls the humanities at the universities, has been heavy in postmodernism since the 1990s. Political correctness and “intersectionality” were disseminated almost overnight sometime around 1997 in the whole country and it seemed nobody noticed.

    The really outstanding feature of the intelectual landscape is the prestige of Antonio Gramsci. Several studies have been made, and he is the most quoted author in dissertations and theses in Brazil.

    By the way, you “nameless” institution looks a lot like UFSC. Does it matter to out them? The programs are so similar around the country.

  4. The site meaningness.com talks about how post-modernism’s problems, and about how *some* things from it were useful and how to use them without embracing the current craziness.

  5. The problem with engaging with Post-modern concepts is that while some of them may be analytically or logically valid, or even useful, Post-modernism as an “academic” structure is profoundly a post-truth, even “post-logical” paradigm. When looked at in this way, Post-modernism more resembles art and wordplay, and the usefulness of any analytically valid proposition coming from this discipline will require it to be unattached to the Post-modern framework.

  6. Diana Montoya makes a good point from the perspective of within the academy. I noted in my previous post that I’ll cite Foucault in spite of his postmodernism because he still has some useful ideas. I’m not even sure if Bourdieu counts as postmodern (or poststructuralist–terms are often used interchangeably, which I’m not sure is correct), but I find him very useful.

    In terms of what Mr. Bellucci originally wrote in the article, though, I feel like there’s a popular, “hostile” definition of postmodernism which he’s using because it’s generally understood. Basically, “any epistemology in which language is ontologically prior to reality and/or power takes precedence over truth.” I learned this “hostile” definition as a teenage archaeology buff before I actually learned any “real” postmodernism in grad school.

  7. I get the feeling that every time someone talks about postmodernism they’re refering to something different, which I find complicates any possibility to talk about it. I agree with you on many points, but on others I don’t. Many postmodern thinkers are highly political and the talk about the subalterns and oppression is common. Thinkers like Deleuze are radically different and have a whole different epistemological ground.
    In any case, postmodernism isn’t a thing to be avoid ed, and there are some things of value to be thought on. There is a lot of empty word play, and most of it tends to dogma rather than philosophy, but to avoid it like a plague doesn’t seem to me like a productive choice either.

  8. i am from Australia, and i vehemently deny that post modernism here is “often used to justify extreme capitalism and white supremacy”.
    it is precisely the opposite in fact, therefore i call on Jill Lyan to rationally justify her comment, or at very least, provide a non-postmodernist citation to support her subjective claims

  9. i am from Australia, and i vehemently deny that post modernism here is “often used to justify extreme capitalism and white supremacy”.
    it is precisely the opposite in fact, therefore i call on Jill Lyan to rationally justify her comment, or at very least, provide a non-postmodernist citation to support her subjective claims

  10. Nicely written. I am getting some of this post-modernism first hand in my history degree, it was decided one of the main topics on Revolutions was the “sexual revolution”.

  11. Pretty similar to my experience in an American anthropology department. I would just add two caveats:

    1) There are some postmodern/poststructural ideas and analytics which can actually be applied, slightly modified, as depoliticized and useful heuristics (as long as we don’t reify them): Foucault’s concepts of “discursive formations” and “genealogy,” for example, and Bourdeau’s ideas of habitus and doxa. I agree with you that Derrida is bullshit though.

    2) The “conceptual penis” hoax is a bad example, since it was contaminated with confirmation bias. More to the point would be how much postmodern gender studies is influenced by Judith Butler, who in “Gender Troubles” relies heavily on Derrida and Lacan. Lacan is a known charlatan, and Derrida works on the false premise that language is ontologically prior to reality and has no external referent. Any field based on these ideas is bound to be problematic.

  12. I’ve noticed that the people who dismiss the importance of reason, logic, science and evidence as ‘just another way of knowing’ or ‘colonialist imperialist hegemony’ etc, are usually the people who have the least rational arguments with no evidence to back them up.

  13. While it appears that your Brazilian post-modernists will argue that capitalism is the root of all evil and should be opposed, in the US and Australia post-modernism is often used to justify extreme capitalism and white supremacy. But then again post-modernism can be used to justify anything, apparently.

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