Recently, classical liberals’ understanding of the phenomenon of postmodernism has come under heavy fire, with Jordan Peterson in particular facing criticism for coining the phrase “postmodern neo-Marxist.” Though it’s fairly obvious that Peterson had in mind the recapitulation of Marxist theory with identity in the place of class, it’s worth noting that core postmodernists had plenty of disagreements with core Marxists. They were skeptical about both words in historical materialism: the “historical” part because they distrusted grand narratives of progress, and the “materialism” part because they saw the material and symbolic realms as co-constitutive. Jean Baudrillard, for example, in one book derides the notion of “linear history” and in another book writes of “the object as sign.” Attempts to define postmodernism negatively, as an attack on some desideratum like logic or truth or free inquiry, often fail as well; for the Enlightenment canon itself, as well as contemporary analytic philosophy and natural science, contains a great wealth of debate, and doubt, about the foundations of scientific knowledge and the ultimate efficacy of reason. Nobody claims that Sextus Empiricus, David Hume, J. L. Mackie, W. V. O. Quine, or Graham Priest were postmodernists. But postmodernism’s critics are charged with explaining why not – that is, with giving an account of the term that excludes those thinkers without seeming arbitrary.
I don’t aim to give such an account here. Rather, I’ll briefly discuss one element of postmodernism that’s absent from the modern academic and cultural politics that are criticized as postmodern. Then I’ll give three potential explanations for its absence – not the only ones, maybe not the best; but hopefully what I say in elaborating them will be somewhat illuminating. The absent element I will discuss is play.
Play in postmodernism
Playfulness predates postmodernism; perhaps in a sense it was an inheritance from the experimentalism of the moderns. “Language games” were an integral part of Wittgenstein’s philosophy; “the death of the author” made a game of interpretation; games made their way into many of Nabokov’s novels and other modernist fiction like At Swim-Two-Birds; found art, aleatory music, John Cage’s “4’33” – whether the idea was to take play itself seriously or to inject play into things wrongly supposed to be serious, game-playing was everywhere in the fifties and sixties.
The classic statement of play in continental philosophy, often (though not always) conceived of as the sort of think tank of postmodernism, was Jacques Derrida’s break from structuralism into poststructuralism, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” A lecture he delivered at a 1966 Johns Hopkins conference sparkling with French thinkers like Lacan and Barthes, it ended up overturning much of the tradition the conference was intended to crystallize. Derrida argued that his proto-postmodern forebears like Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, though critical of the history of Western thought, had engaged in an ultimately futile effort to substitute new “centers” of new “structures” for the ones they renounced. He expanded on this idea the next year in Of Grammatology. Drawing on Ferdinand de Saussure, and arguably on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, he wrote that words mean things only by differentiating themselves from other words, and not by transcending this referential game in reaching reality. When one term in a dyad like male/female, presence/absence, being/becoming, signified/signifier, speech/writing, etc., is privileged in some sort of theory, it amounts to a kind of violence, which Derrida thought his interpretive method, deconstruction, could only ever uncover, not end. (The now-disgraced philosopher John Searle dissected this approach at length. Compare the fatalism to that of Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
The context of the conference where he originally delivered this lecture is fascinating but outside the scope of this article. For us what came after is more important. Over time, the influence of Derrida and like-minded theorists led to a break on the left which has resurfaced with the “new old Left” of e.g. Jacobin and Current Affairs. Derrida, critics said, was just playing around with words. How could serious moral or political claims follow? This was at best a well-intentioned distraction or a symptom of professionalization, at worst a ploy by the ascendant corporate sector (represented no doubt in the imagination of some Marxist critics by the Ford Foundation which had sponsored the Johns Hopkins conference).
But Derrida’s students and followers included feminists like Hélène Cixous and postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. Though still criticized by Marxists like Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton throughout debates in the 1990s, they surely sounded as though they were talking about right and wrong. When Spivak waved her hands about a “subaltern” more “other” than the Levinas-Derrida-inspired Other, it was taken to have implications for our view, and practice, of justice. And even concepts long abandoned by theorists, like Spivak’s “strategic essentialism,” continue to apply, whether as inspirations or simply as descriptions, to social justice activism today.
That words matter; that symbols matter; that talking about how we talk about things, and debating about how we debate, is a form of activism: maybe nothing distinguishes the social justice left – from the more traditional Marxist left as well as from many centrists, conservatives, and libertarians – more than these contentions. But there has also been a change. In deconstruction, the game was to show how a text problematized its own “violence.” Every text, Derridaeans thought, contained resources sufficient for its own critique. But in the new era of virtue-signaling and apology-extracting this method obviously hasn’t remained popular. Rather, the project of “critique,” outlined recently by Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique, is now carried out by the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is not that seemingly bad texts are subject to interpretive free play, to Derrida’s jouissance, which can draw out their ultimate complicity in the right thing; seemingly good texts remain suspect and are constantly interrogated as to their complicity in the wrong thing.
An instructive example is Michel Foucault’s treatment of the “Repressive Hypothesis” in The History of Sexuality. The Repressive Hypothesis, which Foucault derided, was this: People start out with sexualities, prior to (or uncaused by) their encounters with society, and the state punishes the expression of some of them. For the postmodern gamesman Foucault, though, sexualities did not exist before they were constructed as part of a “discourse.” The violence of biopower is already there before any repression, in organization and classification systems, for instance. But this suggests a rather intuitive limit on the importance of self-identification (regarding e.g. gender), for two reasons. First, the claimed identity can’t, for Foucault, be simply “erased” by a dominant culture, because it is also a product of that dominant culture. (As with Derrida, this is an instance of the “bad” being theorized as complicit with the “good.”) Second, even “privileged” identities are still imposed on people by a kind of violence. Difficulties like this continue to crop up in the social recognition theories of gender found in analytic feminist philosophy: if something must be socially recognized to be a gender to begin with, it’s not clear why we must see a nonstandard gender claim as true (or even what we’d be recognizing).
Interestingly, Foucault, a libertine who along with Derrida and the uxoricidal Louis Althusser had argued against age of consent laws, near the end of his life “caught a ‘neoliberal virus’” which led him to extend his views on freedom and play to the realm of the market. The most frequently lambasted postmodern thinker may have been a bit of a classical liberal!
The phenomenon I’m interested in is this: The “playful” terms and topics of the postmoderns retain a great deal of currency in academia and in social justice more broadly. But it is no longer a game. Alongside this, the elaborate and often terribly wrongheaded philosophical justifications fall by the wayside. Now that the moral importance of words and symbols, especially when it comes to identity, is common ground for many academics and lefty activists, there is no need for elaborate theories about words gaining meaning through differentiation, or about the inaccessibility or the nonexistence of an extra-linguistic world.
They needn’t take the ridiculous step Baudrillard took almost offhand in The Illusion of the End and say that “the moral and sentimental exploitation of . . . poverty,” or “charity cannibalism,” is “worse than oppressive violence.” It is enough to say what Bruce Robbins, one of the editors who OKed the “Sokal hoax” paper, says in the introduction to his new book The Beneficiary: that “charity is no solution” to injustice, that those who engage in “philanthropic giving” generally do so because they “want to make [them]sel[ves] feel better,” and that such philanthropists “would do well to supplement it with some reasoned form of political engagement.” To the “new old Left” and similarly-minded centrists, conservatives, and libertarians, it is precisely this “reasoned” political engagement, consisting largely these days in public recitations of shibboleths and the decrying of symbolic outrages, that will seem like it’s intended to make its proponents feel better – it doesn’t even cost them money, or anything “real” or material. Material reality can be let in through the back door now that everyone’s convinced it’s a sideshow to symbols.
Now I’ll give my three explanations of the phenomenon. The first has to do with disciplinary boundaries characteristic of the modern era and the interdisciplinarity of postmodernism. The second is more political: it says the groups who wanted to play decided to stop once they’d won. The third concerns generational psychology – “snowflakes” and “free range kids” and so forth.
Explanation 1: Boundaries coming down and the dominance of the political
In his essay “Modernity – An Incomplete Project,” in the 1983 collection The Anti-Aesthetic, Jürgen Habermas cites Max Weber’s definition of cultural modernity as the separation of science, art, and morality, which had previously been unified by religion, into “three autonomous spheres.” These three domains each had an “inner logic” according to which they would develop toward the ends of truth, beauty, and the good. Postmodernism tore down these walls, leaving us with the interdisciplinary “studies” characteristic of contemporary academic inquiry and the “Real Peer Review”-style autoethnographies, papers punctuated with poor poetry, dissertations on Miley Cyrus, and so on. (Interestingly, Habermas calls what we vaguely know as postmodern thought the “anti-modernism” of “young conservatives,” among whom he includes Foucault and Derrida; traditional “old conservatives” he calls “premodernists,” whereas he reserves “postmodernism” for “neoconservatives.”)
Of course, the breaking down of boundaries and “binaries” was a central postmodern project. But my first explanation goes like this: Having been gloshed into one undifferentiated mass of discourse, the three former spheres did not remain equal in influence. Rather, it was politics, a subset of the moral sphere, that came to dominate both science and art. Commentators like Peterson could thus be excused for seeing a “neo-Marxist” hand in things, as it is generally leftism that tries to expand the political sphere and rightism that tries to contract it.
One open question regarding this explanation is what the influence of science and art are on politics. For instance, the 2016 American presidential campaign could be seen, very schematically, as a battle between Clintonite postmodern science, “we have the data” and so forth, and Trumpian postmodern art, the meta-theatricality of a candidate also acting as pundit. If it could be shown that science and art have intruded into politics comparably to politics’ intrusion into science and art, that would disprove this explanation.
To be honest, I doubt that they have. Political intrusion into science and the arts takes what a philosopher might call not only a causal but a constitutive role. It is not just politically-minded outsiders trying to censor expression they consider wrong. True to their playless postmodernism, politically-minded insiders, artists and academics alike, see their role, the one they ought to occupy, as participating in a political project from another sphere. This goes beyond the obviously laudable authoring of political arguments or policy papers, or the possibly beautiful articulation of moral ideals or mournful depiction of their transgression. It also encompasses the entryist goal of making a field thoroughly political: the “long march through the institutions.” This goal was expressed with admirable honesty by a paper cited on Real Peer Review, which outlined a “pedagogical priority of women’s studies”: “to train students . . . to serve as symbolic ‘viruses’ that infect, unsettle, and disrupt traditional and entrenched fields.” This, I think, is unique to politics.
One nice feature of this explanation is that it brings to light an aspect of early and middle postmodernism that is now forgotten, or taken for granted: the interdisciplinary trend in academia. Current criticisms of “studies” fields, from “women’s studies” and “African-American studies” to “fat studies” and “plant studies,” generally revolve around their narrow and often identitarian (or just plain silly) approach. But when interdisciplinary programs were first fashionable, they were criticized instead for failing to really and rigorously teach the (hopefully epistemically viable) methods of a single discipline. As the replication crisis in psychology and the open science movement that followed it have shown, one salutary aspect of following a method is that a researcher is somewhat “locked in” even if they end up with results they don’t like. Think how many college departments’ descriptions include some version of the following: “We advocate a pluralistic approach to [our topic], drawing on lessons from history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literary studies, critical theory, queer theory, postcolonial theory, and urban planning.” With this many tools, a student or professor will be able to find their way out of any conclusion that troubles their preconceptions. But that’s bad. We don’t want them to have a way out: We want them to be trapped with the problem, and to grow from it. If mathematicians could convincingly cite Derrida to argue that the complexity classes P and NP are simultaneously equal and different, since they both create each other and differentiate themselves from each other, we would lose one of our most provocative problems. And we would not have lost it by solving it.
Indeed, a radical formulation of this explanation might suggest that politics always, or somehow intrinsically, holds back intellectual and artistic development, and that the progress of modernism was accomplished by relegating politics somehow elsewhere. But this is probably not historically tenable.
Explanation 2: Winning by your rules, then playing by mine
The Catholic papal supremacist and anti-liberal Louis Veuillot wrote, as a kind of parody of the history of liberalism: “When I am the weaker, I ask for my freedom, because that is your principle; but when I am the stronger, I take away your freedom, because that is my principle.” (This quote was adapted in Frank Herbert’s Dune and the adapted version used stunningly in a Calvin and Hobbes edit.) Veuillot’s point is what is commonly attributed to Karl Popper as the “paradox of tolerance.” Some principle I hold, call it A, may require me to grant some thing, call it X, to someone who holds the principle B. The X that I’ve granted may enable this person to gain some sort of power. But now they can enact their principle B, which may require them to withhold X (from me or from others). So my pro-X principle led to less X overall. Fascinatingly, this argument is used both by leftists (militating against free speech for Nazis) and by rightists (militating against immigration by e.g. Muslims).
We needn’t resolve the question of whether this pseudo-paradoxical process actually occurs on a large scale – large enough to determine the course of a civilization. It is enough to see that it is plausible on a small scale – in the psychologies of individuals, the rhetoric of workshops and training sessions, the minor incidents that roil a profession but lead only to a few firings at worst. So-called postmodernists, this explanation would have it, played around with words and symbols just long enough to gain a foothold in a few different institutions. Now the same tools that were used for play, to suggest for instance that a certain possibility can’t be definitively ruled out, are used for other purposes, to suggest for instance that a certain possibility is definitively correct. Under the regime of play, the risible notion that the “okay” sign is a symbol of white nationalism, for example, could be subsumed under a theory of a multiplicity of indeterminate meanings. Now that regime change has been effected, the multiplicity evaporates, and the chosen interpreters, the ones who were just playing a game, turn out to be quite serious about precisely the eventuality that had been justified as just a bit of fun.
The influence of feminist epistemology and feminist philosophy of science, heroically but inadequately defended recently by Will Wilson, makes this sort of dynamic evident. Starting from dubious examples where a researcher’s identity is asserted to have led them to see, or to fail to see, some important fact about a problem they were investigating, we end up with required “positionality” sections in dissertations, and scandals about whether people of certain identities are cited enough, or in the right way. Starting from the milquetoast fact that researchers must care more about some truths than others, and must hold e.g. parsimony as a “value,” we end up with the dogma that all inquiry is value-laden, and hence political, and with inquiry’s concomitant wholesale politicization. Values and identity, allowed to “play around” on the field of otherwise objective research, become the only game in town; and then it’s not a game anymore.
Explanation 3: Generational fragility and coddling minds
While the first two explanations suggest there has been a change that was, in some sense, internal to postmodernism, the third explanation is wholly external, so I will not bother too much with the details. This explanation goes: Postmodernism is just one small trend in academia, the media, and the arts. A larger trend is what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called, over two years ago now, “the coddling of the American mind,” an increasing sensitivity to (especially emotional) injury, discomfort with novelty, lack of willingness to hear opposing viewpoints, and so forth. Lenore Skenazy is a notable activist for “free-range parenting” and documents on her blog and on Twitter the overzealous protection of young children by their parents – children too young to have read Derrida, that’s for sure, and parents who are probably not thinking of Foucault when they’re telling their kids not to go outside. (In fact, free-range types might find some common ground with Foucault when it comes to the nightmare of the “Panopticon”) Haidt has gone on to suggest that the things people like he and I see as problems of American college campuses are already visible in high schools: fear of expression, fear of giving offense, “debates” with predetermined conclusions, mantras that can’t be questioned. This doesn’t rule out postmodernism, and the transformation and exclusion of its sense of play, as a causal factor; but it does suggest a limit on the size of its effects.
Will play make a comeback? As part of postmodernism, as part of something else? On this I’m undecided. But critics of postmodernism should take its history of play seriously, regardless of which explanation for its loss they find most convincing. The frivolity that rubbed so many people the wrong way would be a pleasant salve in many contemporary debates; and its place, as well as its erosion, may bear lessons about the dynamics of freedoms so valued by postmodernism’s classical liberal critics.