An intellectual war in which postmodernism is both weaponized and assailed seems to have been raging for a long time. But postmodernism’s proponents and demonizers are seldom willing to engage in a healthy exchange of ideas in an effort to remedy our social, political, philosophical and intellectual conundrums. It is the duty of the academy to provide a synergistic ecosystem that allows for civil discourse and produces cooperative knowledge and holistic understanding. The 1971 debate on human nature between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault—two intellectual juggernauts with fundamentally opposing views—and the 2005 Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker debate on gender are prime examples of the types of conversations that force intellectuals to grow and develop, and challenge their often siloed understandings of the world.
Despite Jean-Francois Lyotard’s claim that postmodern philosophy actually predates modern philosophy, whose assumptions were based on beliefs that were already postmodern, although not defined as such, postmodernism is principally a twentieth-century French philosophical and intellectual rejection of Enlightenment rationalism. The semiotic, phenomenological, psychological, linguistic, psycholinguistic, cultural and other work of Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva and others has laid the groundwork for scholarship that supports much of the current social sciences and humanities.
Postmodernism repudiates empiricism, foundationalism, metanarratives, objectivity, universal claims and biological determinism in favour of relativism and social constructionism. It is also infested by hyperbolic academic jargon. Its frequent impenetrability obscures its mathematical and scientific errors, which now underpin many academic disciplines—errors that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont spotlight in their book Fashionable Nonsense. Sokal and Bricmont call Lacan’s pseudo-algebraic calculations “pure fantasies.” As for Kristeva, she
attempts to impress the reader with fancy words that she obviously does not understand. Andreski “advised” the budding social scientist to copy the less complicated parts of a mathematics textbook; but the definition given here of the set of functions C0(R3) is not even correctly copied, and the errors stand out to anyone who understands the subject.
Noam Chomsky has often argued that postmodernism provides a philosophical vehicle for individuals who want to dissociate themselves from what is happening around them. It has generated its own lingo, favoured by the radical intelligentsia. Radical thinking is not bad in itself, but extreme dogmatism is extremely insalubrious.
So why are postmodern theories so popular in academia? In his 1971 paper, “That’s Interesting!,” Murray Davis argues that, to arouse interest, a theory has to negate the grounds of a previously accepted theory, following a basic formula of “‘What seems to be X is in reality non-X,’ or ’What is accepted as X is actually non-X.’” The idea is to challenge common assumptions while avoiding theories and propositions that can easily be categorized as obvious, irrelevant or absurd. The theorist must present the perfect concoction of radicalism and plausibility. Davis explains that, to become a mediocre social theorist or natural scientist, one simply needs to interpret the rules, framework and limitations of scientific procedures too literally and exclusively. The theories that germinated from philosophical postmodernism found the perfect balance of subversiveness, tenability and titillation. But postmodern theories are also interesting, sensational, radical, exciting and therefore beyond the parameters of any rule. But must these claims be clung to as seriously and taken as literally as they have been? Michel Foucault, one of the most esteemed postmodern thinkers, understood the social and intellectual importance of his sophisticated provocations, but was fond of laughing at himself and was audaciously playful in interviews, as we can see from his 1983 Berkeley sessions with Paul Rainbow and Hubert Dreyfus, recorded when he was dying of AIDS. Foucault exemplifies the necessity of avoiding incendiary othering and instead challenging, knowing, caring for and mastering oneself and making freedom one’s base. This is important because postmodernism stress-tests many common beliefs in order to move discourse and society forward. But postmodernism, like any other school of thought, when taken as scripture or deployed in a ruthless fashion, can lead to an unwillingness to explore other epistemologies and can make people behave like their enemies.
In his 1973 lectures at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Foucault explains, drawing on Spinoza:
if we wish to understand things, if we really wish to understand them in their nature, their essence, and hence their truth, we must take care not to laugh at them, lament them, or detest them … laughing, lamenting, detesting are all ways not of getting close to the object or identifying with it but, on the contrary, of keeping the object at a distance, differentiating oneself from it or marking one’s separation from it, protecting oneself from it through laughter, devalorizing it through complaint, removing it and possibly destroying it through hatred … a radical malice of knowledge.
The postmodernist who laughs at, laments or hates the other becomes like that other. The postmodernist’s response to the world is all she has. Shaming, excluding and humiliating others can bring nothing progressive into existence. Self-criticism, a willingness to dismantle or destroy the self, is central to both Foucault and Nietzsche’s thought. If social ‘inferiors’ respond in kind to the shame, humiliation and exclusion meted out by their ‘superiors,’ no one will end up any better off.
Postmodernism serves an important role in many fields of intellectual, political and social discourse and in activism. It drives research and movements that strive for a more accepting and diverse social ecosystem. Though much of its evidence is shoddy, it encourages individuals to think critically, inquisitively, inventively, innovatively and creatively. Radical thinking of this kind often forces sciences and even mathematics to be self-correcting. Without it, no one would had been brave enough to challenge the supposedly rational claims that Indigenous people are savages; that women are less intelligent than men; that homosexuals are unnatural; Aryans superior to Jews and blacks non-human.
Can one choose between schools of thought that believe in postmodernist claims and those that do not? Maybe choosing is not the answer. Maybe dialogue is what allows for intellectual maturation and mutual understanding.
The cryptic style of postmodern writing is at times a defence mechanism that allows it to get away with improbable assertions. As Sokal and Bricmont highlight, postmodernism uses illusory proofs to establish its intellectual standing. But postmodernism also provides exciting ideas that empower groups whose viewpoints have traditionally been excluded from a multiplicity of domains. This allows for new voices and progressive practices to come to fruition. Postmodernism, then, should neither be demeaned nor allowed to become dogmatic. The intellectual arena should embrace both postmodernism and constructive critiques of it and allow for a fruitful exchange of ideas. This is what the academy was built for. It forces schools of thought to grow, acquire new utility and continue to develop while working to produce better laws, societies, individuals and freedoms.