I first began talking seriously about postmodernism in an epistemological sense seven years ago. I was studying it at university at the same time as reading and writing about skepticism and critical thinking for pleasure, and it appalled me. I began to make a serious study of postmodernism and its development and its disastrous influence on the feminist movement I was still a part of. At that time, I found that most non-academics had never heard of postmodernism even though they were noting the same troubling developments. When I joined Twitter, and searched for “postmodernism,” I found only a couple of mentions of it a day and usually in an artistic context.
In the last couple of years, concerns about postmodernism have grown in a political/cultural context and now a search turns up dozens of mentions. We are hearing more criticism of “postmodernism” related to the left, the problem in universities, social justice activism (particularly feminism and anti-racism), “post-truth society,” epistemic and moral relativism, threats to freedom of speech and troubling conceptions of privilege, diversity and inclusion. I am glad. People are becoming more aware of the influence of a certain set of ideas on current political and epistemological problems. I would like to think I have contributed to that with my essay explaining the ideas and how they manifest today for those who have not studied it.
Nevertheless, there is still considerable genuine confusion and disingenuous obfuscation about how postmodernism is relevant to current problems in academia, social justice movements and wider society, and this mostly comes from people who have studied it. It has become necessary to clarify what critics of postmodernism are and are not criticizing not only for the genuinely confused aficionados of some aspect of postmodernism but also for others who don’t understand their objections because they have only considered it in a political/cultural sense. It is necessary to briefly address the objection that there is much more to postmodernism than its critics will allow and then look, in considerably more detail at the astonishing claim that postmodernism is dead.
Claim: There is much more to postmodernism than its critics present.
Sometimes people with a background in postmodern studies of some kind complain that critics of postmodernism attack a strawman version of it; a simplistic, reductive distillation of just a few of its tenets which are taken to an extreme. This is not entirely unjustified, but there is a reason for this. It is that it is a simplistic, reductive distillation of just a few of its tenets which is plaguing society right now. There is a reason that there is no largescale ethical/political criticism of postmodern architecture and that is because postmodern architecture is causing no largescale ethical or political problems.
This criticism of critics of postmodernism is sometimes genuine and sometimes disingenuous. A personal friend of mine, who is an artist, was genuinely bewildered that I could have any moral objection to postmodernism because art was the only realm in which he had encountered it. This is not uncommon because postmodernism was such a huge multidisciplinary field encompassing vast intellectual terrain. However, some defenders of postmodernism have used this argument to me to make a kind of motte and bailey defense of postmodernism as a whole: “You dislike postmodernism? What’s wrong with this building, painting, useful linguistic analysis, astute historical argument?”
It is often necessary to clarify that critics of postmodernism in a political/cultural context are not criticizing it in any other context. Art, literature, and architecture are certainly areas in which postmodernism can be thought-provoking or aesthetically pleasing (or aesthetically disturbing which can be its own kind of pleasure), and some of its ideas in the realms of psychoanalysis, history, linguistics and philosophy are insightful.
Critics are usually very clear about which ideas and cultural manifestations they are criticizing. The goal is seldom to summarize postmodernism and dismiss it wholesale but to focus on some very specific ideas which are impacting society right now. These are commonly epistemic and moral relativity, the idea that knowledge, society and even the individual are constructed by dominant discourses and the resulting focus on systems of power and privilege and hierarchies of identity which leads to the undervaluation of individuality and shared humanity. It is best to understand those of us who criticize postmodernism in a political/cultural context as working backwards from current problems on the left in the form of divisive identity politics, cultural relativism, denial of objective truth and intense sensitivity to language to their source. Those early postmodern ideas have been very influential on cultural problems we are experiencing today.
Claim: Postmodernism is dead.
This brings us to the misconception that postmodernism is dead which requires a more detailed response. This is a claim most often made by leftist academics. The argument is that postmodernism ended anytime between the 1980s and the turn of the century and critics of it are therefore outdated and complaining about a problem which no longer exists. The evidence given for this is that the high deconstructive phase of the original postmodernists ended during this period. This phase which is often called “high postmodernism” is difficult to encapsulate in an accessible summary because it arose in many different disciplines each with its own, often convoluted, “theories” and specialized language, but it was characterized by a radical skepticism towards knowledge and reason, an intense focus on language or discourse and a fundamental cultural constructivism.
The High Deconstructive Phase
Lyotard used the word “skepticism” to describe an attitude towards grand narratives – overarching explanations which brought coherence and purpose to our understanding of the world. He included Christianity and Marxism in this but also science and argued that knowledge is constructed in language games and inextricably linked with power. Foucault made a very similar argument historically and asserted that it was meaningless to speak of, or against knowledge, reason and truth and that there was only one episteme (way of obtaining knowledge) in any society and it decided what could be known. He called this “power-knowledge” and argued that it worked through discourses which situated people within dominant or subordinated roles in society. Derrida deconstructed language arguing that stable meaning was ultimately unattainable, and that language works on a system where meaning is reached for imperfectly by differences which are understood hierarchically (male > female) but that this is ultimately arbitrary and can be “deconstructed” to show its lack of a stable anchor. Baudrillard claimed that society had moved beyond meaning and was completely losing touch with the “real” and descending into simulation and artificiality. Objectivity was unattainable and even the laws of physics could not be relied upon.
These original postmodern ideas were all about dismantling our understanding of knowledge and reason and language and society and the individual subject. There was little advocacy of rebuilding, minimal activism (though leftist and liberal themes permeate it) and much playfulness. It lacked utility and purpose. It broke things down but having done so, there was not much left to do or say. The high deconstructive phase of postmodernism came to a natural end. It has been increasingly uncommon to see the term “postmodernism” used explicitly as a theoretical framework in published papers. It is common for academics to be critical of this purely deconstructive form of postmodernism and to assert that they do not use it in their work.
The Evolution to an “Activism-Identity” phase.
Nevertheless, it would be demonstrably false to claim these ideas about being skeptical of grand narratives and privileging mini-narratives, of intense focus on language because of the belief that discourses construct social reality and knowledge itself, of downplaying the role of individuality and shared humanity and focusing on systems of power, privilege and marginalization which define groups and situate people according to their identity have gone away. They clearly have not. Instead, they became more explicitly politicized and identity-based. The next wave of critical theorists developed postcolonial theory, queer theory, intersectionality and critical race theory. These all drew explicitly on these postmodernist ideas whilst departing from its playful and rather aimless origins. They moved beyond deconstructing social reality and into an “activism-identity” based theory-making about those constructs.
Postcolonial studies departed least of all from postmodernism and, in fact, postmodernism and postcolonialism are often taught together. The most influential of the first postcolonial theorists was Edward Said. His intellectual influences and indeed his mentors included Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno and most significant of all, Michel Foucault. Although Said would later become critical in some ways of Foucault, his early work is permeated with Foucauldian concepts of discourses, power and knowledge and he was instrumental in spurring the intellectual development of Foucault’s ideas in the United States. His best-known work, Orientalism (1978), was a foundational text for postcolonial theory and the Foucauldian emphasis on knowledge as constructed by discourses of power is clear throughout.
“My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that ‘our’ East, ‘our’ Orient becomes ‘ours’ to possess and direct.” (pxviii)
Following Said, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak departed from him only to take an approach to postcolonial studies even more indebted to postmodernism. Bhabha drew on Foucault but even more so on Derrida and Lacan. Spivak made her entry into the intellectual world mentored by Paul de Man and first found acclaim with her preface to and translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. (Those wishing to understand just how postmodern these theorists are are recommended to read this essay by Sumit Chakrabarti.)
Queer theory emerged considerably later, in the early 1990s and is informed by a combination of feminist theory and thought surrounding sexuality and gender identity. Gender theory and Gender Studies are very much informed by queer theory. The whole realm of gender theory and queer theory is messy with many overlapping branches all of which owe a great deal to Judith Butler. Butler’s strongest influences were Foucault, Derrida and the French feminists including Luce Irigaray and Simone de Beauvoir. In her hugely influential book Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argues that gender is essentially performative and seeks to problematize the accepted link and distinction between sex and gender, believing both to be culturally constructed.
“(G)ender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (p7).
As demonstrated above, Butler is notoriously difficult to read, leading to a proliferation of interpretations and continuations of her ideas about gender.
Intersectionality and critical race theory, which gained momentum from the 80s are closely connected and indeed, both of them owe a great deal to Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term “intersectionality” and is a leading scholar of critical race theory. In her foundational essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” which set out the concept of intersectionality, Crenshaw said ‘“I consider intersectionality to be a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” And yet, in intersectionality and critical race theory, we see the greatest departure from the high deconstructive phase of postmodernism and Crenshaw explains this clearly:
“While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance… But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people – and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful in thinking about – is the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.”
It is worth looking closely at this because it encapsulates an evolution of postmodernism which took place in various degrees throughout activism and identity based critical theory. The first phase deconstructed meaning; it tore conceptual structures apart and sought to discover the “aporia” – the contradictions from which no coherent sense could be made. It sought to show knowledge, truth and meaning to be culturally constructed. The next wave accepted this premise, but it also wanted to address social inequalities and for this, endlessly dismantling anything which could be considered real was not helpful. Crenshaw’s objection that to say something is socially constructed is not to say it has no significance in the world is a partial shift back towards making truth claims about it. A common criticism of postmodernism in the 80s among feminists of very different views was that they could not address inequalities on behalf of a group if that group did not really exist. And yet, the idea of gender as a cultural construct was widely held among feminists and regarded as essential to liberation.
Mary Poovey, a materialist feminist, set forth the problem, frankly:
“To take deconstruction to its logical conclusion would be to argue that “woman” is only a social construct that has no basis in nature, that “woman,” in other words, is a term whose definition depends upon the context in which it is being discussed and not upon some set of sexual organs or social experiences. This renders the experience women have of themselves and the meaning of their social relations problematic, to say the least. It also calls into question the experiential basis upon which U.S. feminism has historically grounded its political programs. The challenge for those of us who are convinced both that real historical women do exist and share certain experiences and that deconstruction’s demystification of presence makes theoretical sense is to work out some way to think both women and “woman.” It isn’t an easy task.”
Divisions already present in feminism became more pronounced as a result of how different groups of feminists responded to this aspect of postmodernism. The radical feminists, materialist feminists and Marxist feminists (who have considerable overlap) often vehemently rejected it because of the problem described by Poovey for a female reality based on biology although some found value in some of the social constructivism ideas. Poovey herself called for a “toolbox” approach like this. Liberal feminists who were not committed to the position that gender is entirely a social construct but whose activism was based on tackling gender roles that were oppressive also largely rejected it.
The emerging intersectional feminists were guided by Crenshaw and they adopted the postmodern ideas of cultural constructivism by discourse and drew further on the moral and epistemic relativism and notions of hierarchies of power and privilege via their incorporation of aspects of postcolonial and queer theory that the multi-faceted nature of intersectionality requires. They rejected the pure deconstructive approach because it was politically unproductive, and they sought to map social realities. They developed a strong focus on identity politics which the earlier postmodernists had not, following Crenshaw and those who expanded upon her work. This form of feminism dominates the academy and activism now.
The high deconstructive phase passed and the word “postmodernism” gradually fell out of common usage. A significant evolution of postmodern ideas which made them usable politically by feminists, queer theorists, post-colonial and critical race theorists had occurred. Successive critical theorists who drew on and expanded the ideas of the original postmodernists began to be cited more often than the original theorists themselves and the postmodern origins began to be buried.
The postmodern origins were buried to some extent in academia because new generations of theorists accepted the criticisms of the pure deconstructive phase and wanted to embrace the new identity-activism approach, but the history of the retained ideas was not denied and Said, Bhabha, Spivak, Butler and Crenshaw and their explicit adherence to and expansion of them remain central to their respective fields.
Postmodernism in Activism.
They were buried much more within activism. It is very common now to encounter feminist, anti-racist, LGBT activists who espouse postmodern ideas but seem to have no idea of their genesis. Nevertheless, they will focus intently on society as culturally constructed by discourses which create dominant and marginalized groups and work on an assumption that knowledge is dependent on identity. Consequently, they will argue that language can be violence, that power produces knowledge, that knowledge and morality are culturally relative, and that science and reason are imperialist, masculinist, white and heteronormative. They may never mention Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault or even Said, Spivak or Butler, but these ideas are postmodern.
Postcolonial theory has made its way into activism. We frequently hear activists refer to “imperialism” and “colonization” in relation to everything from educations to hairstyles. The demand to “decolonize science” and humanity departments has drawn a lot of attention. It is common to hear criticism of Islam described as “colonialist” and this is where the insulting term “native informant” for a Muslim who does so comes from. This is very different to a traditionally liberal approach to human rights which accepts shared humanity and individuality as it attempts to eradicate prejudice and discrimination and redress the wrongs done by past imperialism.
Queer theory has also found its way into activism. It is common to hear talk of performativity and fluidity of gender and for extremely close readings of everyday language on the level of the word to “reveal” homophobia and transphobia. Deeply culturally constructivist arguments are often made about gender in which even biological sex – the naming of a penis as a male sex organ or a vagina as female one – is argued to be a cultural construct. This has the hallmarks of Butler, Foucault and Derrida which is very different to a liberal, rational and scientific approach to sexuality and gender identity which seeks to end discrimination against LGBTQ and also to understand the biology of gender and sexuality.
Critical race theory is also commonly to be found in mainstream activism. The claim that only white people can be racist because racism is “prejudice + power” is very commonly heard and reveals its postmodern origins and rejection of universal and consistent liberalism. Most of all, however, it is common to hear speech about “intersectionality” and very often all the other categories are subsumed into this. Because intersectionality works on a framework which incorporates race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion and, to a certain extent, class, it is the most user-friendly of all for activists who focus on intersecting elements of marginalized identities arranged in a sort of hierarchy of oppression. A set of complex ideas which have roots in postmodernism and have evolved through successive waves of identity-activism critical theory have been simplified, condensed and distilled into bite-sized chunks for activists who may or may not understand where they came from or even be able to explain their rationale.
Postmodernism in Wider Society.
These ideas have had a great impact on society more broadly. Because we generally want to be fair and promote equality and are conscious of the historical oppression of women, minority racial and ethnic groups and LGBTs and because we carry guilt for past slavery and colonialism, social justice movements have great moral authority. The Civil Rights Movement, 2nd wave liberal feminism and Gay Pride are widely recognized to have done great things in campaigning for equality and the current movements position themselves as a continuation of this project. They are not. The postmodern epistemic shift which took place within these movements has changed the focus from universal liberalism – everyone deserves equal rights and freedoms regardless of their race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, creed, physical ability – to identity politics – individuals are part of various collectives based on race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, creed, physical ability who all experience things differently and action against inequality must be filtered through these identities.
When we hear talk of the need for “diversity” in workplaces and universities and find that this refers solely to identity, this is a reflection of the postmodern view that knowledge is culturally constructed and that different identity groups are positioned differently in relation to it. Therefore, it is believed that different groups produce different knowledge. There are women’s perspectives and people of color’s perspectives and gay perspectives and trans perspectives even on things like engineering. Furthermore, the belief that gender is culturally constructed frequently extends to cognitive, psychological and behavioral differences and so if women are underrepresented in any (illustrious) specific field, this can only be the result of discrimination or discouragement on the part of society. Racial imbalances are understood to demonstrate the same thing even though, in the UK, South Asians and Jews are both primary victims of racial/ethnic prejudice and particularly successful professionally suggesting that more factors need to be considered. Of course, sexism still exists, and racism certainly does but this purely culturally constructivist approach does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny and is therefore likely to hinder rather than help efforts to identify and eradicate discrimination.
It is unlikely that all owners of businesses and companies are radical cultural constructivists, but this does not mean they can get away with neglecting this very intersectional postmodern understanding of diversity. They will still be held accountable if they are unworried that their employees are not evenly representative of all identity groups. To fail to be seen to approach diversity in the approved way is to be regarded as sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic or all number of other forms of bigotry which are rightly socially unacceptable. The recent firing of James Damore for arguing that fewer women are interested in tech than men, a position backed up by much evidence, is the perfect example of the extent to which cultural constructivist views have become mandatory.
It is also very difficult to be anyone in society and not have noticed the increased policing of speech. Anyone who has a social media account and addresses issues of identity or equality even rarely, even in passing, even accidentally, is very likely to be found and have those views scrutinized. This has led to firings on a number of highly publicized occasions and public shaming and dogpiles on many more. This is a reflection of the postmodern view that social reality is constructed by dominant discourses which makes it essential to ensure that the right speech is dominant. This is in stark contrast to the previous liberal view that bad ideas are best defeated by better ideas and that a lively and often heated “marketplace of ideas” is what brought about the advances in human rights and equality that we now enjoy.
In addition to the far-reaching effects of cultural constructivism and intense sensitivity to language on nearly everyone who engages with society, convincing arguments have been made about the influence of leftist identity politics on the increase of rightist identity politics and about the influence of postmodernism on our post-truth problem. There simply is no getting away from the influence of postmodernism. Ironically, it has become a dominant discourse. Therefore, many people who claim that postmodernism is over genuinely believe that to be the case because those ideas have evolved and have been orthodox for so long now, they have become normalized and been internalized.
I do not accept the postmodern idea that dominant discourses construct social reality, however, and I do believe in the power of good ideas to defeat bad ones. I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the problem with postmodernism in its evolved, condensed and normalized form and by the increased willingness to push back against it although alarmed at some of the forms this takes. These ideas cannot be defeated by rushing hard in the opposite direction and embracing populist or right-wing views or by misunderstanding postmodernism as a simple expansion of Marxism and missing the important epistemic element of the problem. Postmodernism both emerged and evolved within the liberal left. It can only be addressed by applying consistently liberal principles to the problem as it actually is. Then postmodernism might genuinely die. Right now, it’s very much alive and kicking.
Baudrillard. J. (1981) Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Farria Glaser. Reprint. The University of Michigan Press. 1994.
Butler. C. (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Lyotard. J. (1979) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Bennington.G & Massumi.B. Reprint. Manchester. Manchester University Press. 1984