This is an abridged and edited version of a piece published in Everything Studies.
Since I’ve been active on Twitter, I’ve had front row seats to the best intellectual slapfights no money can buy. It’s been uniquely interesting and yet frustrating. What’s hot right now in my bubble and its warzone-laden borderlands is “postmodernism.” The arguments usually start with tweets complaining about the latest social justice-related spat and using the word “postmodernism” or the phrases “postmodernist neo-Marxism” or even “cultural Marxism.” (These all mean the same thing, with slight differences in emphasis: “postmodernism” often focuses on a hostility to objectivity; “cultural Marxism” describes collectivist, conflict-based politics; “postmodern neo-Marxism” is the whole package.) Then other people criticize or mock the tweeters for not understanding what postmodernism is. Unproductive discussion results.
This bothers me for two reasons. One is erisological—this is a typical case of dysfunctional disagreement, i.e. a disagreement is fuelled by at least one party’s intentional or unintentional misunderstanding of either the other party’s position or the nature of their differences. The other is that I hate seeing arguments I’m fundamentally sympathetic to presented in a weak form.
I truly am sympathetic to those who complain about “postmodernism.” But I’ve spent too much time and effort learning to recognize disagreement patterns not to notice when “my side” is engaging in dodgy argumentation. Part of this is integrity (I hope), but another part is recognition of a tactical mistake: the sloppy use of terms like “postmodernism” or academically strange hybrids like “postmodern neo-Marxism” gives people an excuse to reject what you say. It’s good argumentation tactics to avoid making points which leave you vulnerable to criticism for trivial reasons, e.g. using a term in a way that suggests you don’t know what you’re talking about. Using technical terms in non-technical senses makes those in the know think exactly that and reject otherwise reasonable points.
What “Postmodernism” Means
Postmodernism is more complicated than it appears, and its details exceed my own knowledge and certainly what can be discussed here. Nevertheless, the most important thing about postmodernism is right there in the name. Post–modernism. It comes after and must be understood as a reaction to modernism. Modernism itself emerged out of premodernism. In the broadest terms, this trio of words is about the social order and the ideas that describe, govern, and constitute it.
In premodernity, the social order and the nature of the world were one and the same and taken for granted. They were handed down to us by tradition, not options for us to engineer. Modernity upended all that. From the Renaissance on, through the increasing importance of science, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, the world changed, and our ideas changed with it. Along with the natural world, the social order was now the object of reason and critique, of control and systematization. This enables, or even ensures, progress with a capital P. But progress has its limits, everything doesn’t get better cost-free, and it isn’t a given carried by historical momentum. There are pitfalls. Things haven’t always been as easy as they appear. Enter postmodernism.
Postmodernism is the disillusion with and the critique of the whole of the modernist project and its assumptions. Progress is not a given, not a law of nature. We can’t answer all questions with science, and no one framework correctly describes society and history. In essence, postmodernism is the idea that there is no one true method, model, ideology, or narrative with the right to dictate facts and mold the social order. Not Christianity, not science, not dialectical materialism. Nothing.
Postmodernism isn’t so much an ideology, a framework, or a system of thought as it is the rejection of ideologies, frameworks, and systems of thought. This doesn’t exactly make it easier to understand. From a description in Primer Magazine:
Postmodernism, you have to remember, didn’t grow out of a need to make sense of the world but out of a failure of the world to make sense. That might sound infuriatingly vague, and again, you wouldn’t be wrong.
So Are We All Postmodernists Now?
For those of us born a few years after the publication of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979), it’s even harder to understand postmodernism because we were born into its skepticism of grand, overarching metanarratives. We don’t intuitively comprehend that, in the past, people really did think there were conceptual systems that captured the nature of the world perfectly using human-readable components—and dictated a “correct” social system to boot.
My generation has grown up in a cultural milieu where ultimate, satisfying answers to life, society, the universe, and everything aren’t in the cards. The important task has instead become evaluating not whether or not something achieves or fails to achieve perfect knowledge but its degree of partial validity. In other words, the solution to the realization that none of the thought systems humans have come up with covers everything perfectly is not to reject them all or to cling to your personal favorite, but to accept them all and approach truth through the resulting gestalt.
The funny thing is that all this is eminently compatible with the findings of natural science—and scientific materialism as tentative metaphysics—and the hostility between the two modes of thought is therefore unnecessary, annoying, and sad. The postmodern understanding is that the world doesn’t “make sense” on a human scale and in human terms. Crucially, I don’t believe this insight transfers all that well to the scale and methods of hard sciences. They remain immensely successful and haven’t burned themselves out the way philosophy keen on grand narratives did—the world of hard science shows no particular signs of not making sense.
I think we should read postmodern criticism of science as referring primarily to its inability to give us answers on the scale and of the kind we want. But if such criticisms are fed to a generation who have never believed such a thing to begin with, we risk overapplying them to a contemporary version of science that isn’t guilty of the same hubris and a rationality that isn’t the mid-century straw version. What does it mean to hear, in difficult-to-interpret form, that there is no overarching plan or pattern to life, history, and everything, for a generation who didn’t experience a society where everyone acted as if there were? The hyperpragmatic rationalization and technological optimism characteristic of the 1950s and 60s seem cartoonish today. The premodern ideas of people being born into social classes, of this is how it’s supposed to be, and of viewing the world through the lens of The Great Chain of Being etc. are positively exotic.
Saying “don’t think you know everything” to a generation who never thought they did risks coming over as “don’t think you know anything.” Pointing out the limitations of science, rationality, and objectivity is valid and extremely important. But it is, as I have written elsewhere, a corrective to modernist naivety, not a viable stance in itself.
If you receive a corrective without first absorbing what it’s meant to be a corrective to, you’re going to hear it the wrong way. It won’t have the effect it’s meant to have. It isn’t among the top ten things most of us actually need to hear. (Interestingly, it seems that many young people do want to hear— from, for example, a suddenly famous Canadian psychologist—exactly the sort of overarching meaning-making mythology postmodernism tears down, but which they’ve never actually lived with).
Many youngish radicals and relativists are taught these ideas—filtered through a political lens—and miss the fact that they’re tempering something, not overturning it. Modernist ideas like objectivity, science, rationality etc. are still largely correct—it’s just that they have limits. Acting as if there’s no validity to postmodern-style critiques makes you easily dismissible.
“Postmodernism” as a Snarl Word
Any ideology which is coherent is not, strictly speaking, postmodernist. Archetypal postmodernist attitudes range from despair over a conceptual world in shambles, to a detached, playful, and trollish stance which often refuses to stake out a position, preferring instead to play around with and destabilize systems. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is probably the most popular work that embodies the spirit of postmodernism—it can be read both as rootlessly nihilistic and as joyfully free.
A lot of things referred to as postmodernist don’t fit this incoherent, playful disruptiveness. Marxism certainly doesn’t—it is the epitome of modernism, with its grand, systematic, materialist theory of inevitable historical development. Disciplines, techniques, and ideologies like standpoint theory, social constructionism, critical theory, gender theory, intersectionality, identity politics, privilege theory etc. don’t fit the postmodern label that well either, because they also incorporate definite convictions. They make claims, they have moral agendas, and they construct conceptual systems. A fluid, nihilistic playfulness isn’t one of their most obvious characteristics.
Unfortunately, saying “you shouldn’t use this word this way because it isn’t technically correct, you guys” doesn’t have the greatest of success rates, so I suspect we’re stuck with “postmodernism” being thrown around somewhat carelessly. The best thing to do then, is to make explicit what is actually meant by it, in practice, right now.
“Postmodernism” is used by its critics as a label for a set of ideas and attitudes which bear a family resemblance both to each other and to postmodernism proper. Its use is strikingly similar to that of other bogeymen-words like, “patriarchy” and “capitalism,” in that it is not one big phenomenon, but many small ones in a trenchcoat.
In my experience, the list of what is being referred to under the name “postmodernism” looks something like this:
- Activist scholarship that’s more concerned with advocacy than knowledge.
- The idea that it’s okay to be as political and biased as you want because everything is political anyway.
- Public debate is a war of ideas and non-rational means are acceptable. Indeed, insisting on rational rules and objective standards is nothing but an attempt to gain the upper hand.
- The attitude that science, rationality, and logic hold no special status as means of inquiry, often backed up by describing them as male, white, and western, in contradiction to their professed universality.
- Identity politics as defined here: i.e. the idea that oppressed groups are owed agreement with their views due to past and present injustices, backed by the notion that effective communication and rational discussion across identity lines are impossible.
- Favoring subjectivity and intuition over objectivity and evidence.
- Favoring ideas over the physical when thinking about what constitutes reality.
- Everything is about power. For example, scientific facts are the outcome of social processes and reflects the biases of the winners, not actual truth.
- The structure of society is not a given and arguments justifying the status quo are simply the ruling groups’ attempts to justify their privileges.
- Things are “socially constructed,” which can mean many things, but usually implies that the categorization/conceptualization of people, events, or contexts creates corresponding behaviors, rather than those behaviors being innate.
- Cultural and ideological forces, not material limitations or human nature, cause social problems.
- There is no “human nature” worth considering.
- Individual wants are mediated by culture to such an extent that they can be viewed as untrustworthy.
- A focus on relationships as more fundamental than entities.
- An unwillingness to pass judgment on cultural practices, often inconsistently applied only to cultures considered oppressed.
- Rigid labeling, especially of people, is illegitimate. It’s desirable to disrupt and destabilize categories, boundaries and roles.
- Subjective interpretations of experiences and communication are always correct. Intent does not determine meaning.
- People’s own view of themselves is more important than their objective characteristics.
- The political and social implications of ideas are more important and interesting than their accuracy or parsimony.
- Image and appearances are more important than substance.
- It’s valid to criticize scientific ideas ideologically, even if you have no particular scientific objections to offer.
- No culture is better than any other. This often includes the hypocritical exception of western civilization, which is bad.
Postmodernism vs. the Pomo-oid Cluster
While I don’t think people will stop calling all this “postmodernism,” my preferred term is “The Pomo-oid Cluster” (which is totally going to catch on).
Ideas and attitudes like these do occur both in many academic disciplines and in public discourse. They are not all the same, they don’t come from the same intellectual traditions, and some of them were certainly not new to the twentieth century. Many of them are older than The Postmodern Condition and its immediate influences.
These ideas look very different from each other and from their vulgarized counterparts in the pomo-oid cluster to people within the academy, familiar with the specific histories of academic ideas and the contexts in which they developed. In high resolution, the academically embedded versions look like a complex, historically extended structure of ideas borrowing components from each other, while remaining fundamentally separate and highly distinguishable.
However, viewed from the outside—especially when they start spreading from non-expert to non-expert—these ideas get simplified and rendered in much lower resolution. Then, a cluster with internal divisions and contradictions starts to look more like a single blob, in which only the most salient and politically charged features can be made out.
The most obvious qualities of this blob are a common political alignment and a generally “radical” attitude that includes hostility to rationality, objectivity, boundaries, structure, tradition, systematization, stability, formalization, categorization, hierarchy, and universalism.
The difference between the insider and the outsider view is striking when you compare the articles on postmodernism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Stanford article is all about the founding technical texts and their relationships with earlier technical works. It’s not that helpful to a non-specialist trying to understand the big picture or what it all means outside of a philosophy classroom. The Britannica, on the other hand, defines “postmodernism” rather clearly: as the rejection of a list of modernist assumptions (objective reality, definite meaning, certain knowledge, moral realism, progress, universalism, etc.).
Essentially, we have a situation in which some people are complaining that a forest is nothing like a city, and they are being rebuffed by people living in the forest and insisting that pine trees, rocks, moss, squirrels, and the sound of a babbling brook are entirely different things and you can’t lump them all together, you uncredentialed buffoon.
Petty territorialism aside, this reveals an underlying disagreement about the identity of ideas. Are they tied to the particular context in which they were developed and cease to be “themselves” when removed from that context? Or are they free agents that can be borrowed, generalized, stripped of their origins and some of their features and used in other contexts, and still remain the same? In other words, is an idea a single thing, thought up in a particular place and at a particular time, or is an idea a set, a general pattern that applies to many things in the world?
The more you know about an idea—its history, its relationships and its details (i.e. the more high-res your image), the more likely you are to take the “embedded” approach (a highly un-postmodern attitude!) and complain about people bastardizing it by removing all the texture that make it what it is. It really does become difficult to see the forest for the trees when you’ve spent a lot of time studying them.
This article by Matt McManus is illustrative. He argues that lumping Marxism and postmodernism together makes no sense at all and supports this by describing some profound differences between them. He’s right, of course, but the argument misses its target by assuming that all uses of “Marxism” or “postmodern” are meant in a fully detailed, technical sense. Instead, these terms tend to be used like normal words often are: semi-metaphorically, with only some of their properties and associations active. It’s like calling some sad thing a “tragedy,” even though, strictly speaking, it isn’t a Greek morality play that ends with the protagonist in ruin due to a fatal character flaw.
McManus ends his article with this advice/admonition (advination?):
What this brief genealogy shows us is that the attempt to conflate Marxism and post-modernism under the label “cultural Marxism” is, at the very least, highly problematic. Theorists who wrote about post-modernism as an epoch drew on Marx and post-Marxist ideas to criticize it very sharply. Those who wrote about post-modernism as a philosophical stance, and who are the main theoretical inspirations for today’s identity politics advocates tended to be highly critical, or in Foucault’s case even dismissive, of Marx. Critics on the right who want to lump all strands of left wing intellectual thought together should be far more cautious and rigorous in their appraisals. Otherwise, they are just knocking down caricatures and strawmen.
However, the phenomena those caricatures and strawmen refer to do exist, and we need to be able to talk about them. It is just hard to criticize them accurately because they have no identifiable source or definition; no one invented them in their current form. This is guerrilla warfare, which is difficult, so people usually just attack whatever official-looking institution they can find nearby.
Since it tends to be the simplified, decontextualized, and often vulgarized versions of ideas that spread and actually have an effect on society, insisting that those low-res versions are wrong or nonexistent, and looking down on anyone who tries to refer to them, makes it impossible to have a conversation about ideas with real impact. Consequently, I think the sloppy use of “postmodernism” is, while uncomfortable, ultimately acceptable. Prefacing it with “vulgar,” to tip off insiders about the sense in which you are using the word, would help a lot. At the same time, insiders should take the inverse of McManus’s advice and remember that outsiders often use the term in a non-technical way. If they use this inaccuracy as a point of attack, we’re all going to end up talking past each other.