Response to Response to Postmodernism Against “Postmodernernism”
Firstly I’d like to thank you not only for responding, but for responding with value and substance. This is exactly what I’ve always seen as Medium’s strength, but people rarely engage in the conversation despite it being so readily accessible through the response features! I hope we can continue this conversation and be an example for other Medium users as to what is possible on this platform with regards to meaningful conversation and a collaborative clearing of the trees to make our way towards some sort of truth.
I’ll begin by working through the definitions you have provided.
“Any style in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, etc., that reacts against an earlier modernist movement.”¹
Broad is indeed an understatement! But (and perhaps humorously) I find this is also perhaps a bit restrictive, and speaks to an important distinction I think should be made between postmodernity and hypermodernity, which I’ll get to a bit later. However, to say that postmodernity is anything that is specifically reacting to modernism does not necessarily encompass some of the thought most criticized by postmodernism’s most fervent critics.
“A late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”²
I can generally agree with this definition. The “general distrust of grand theories and ideologies” I will refer to as a “distrust of meta-narratives,” which I think encompasses that longer phrasing into something more succinct.
“Postmodernists believe that the West’s claims of freedom and prosperity continue to be nothing more than empty promises and have not met the needs of humanity. They believe that truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself. Most believe nationalism builds walls, makes enemies, and destroys ‘Mother Earth,’ while capitalism creates a ‘have and have not’ society, and religion causes moral friction and division among people.”³
I think this definition can be, in many ways, quite restrictive. I think the phrase “truth is relative” and “truth is up to each individual to determine for himself” is contradictory — the first being relative and the second being subjective. See my article on relativity here.
“It is striking that the major postmodernists — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty — are of the far left politically. And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality. So one of my four theses about postmodernism is that it develops from a double crisis — a crisis within philosophy about knowledge and a crisis within left politics about socialism.”⁴ — Stephen Hicks
I think the most valid criticism of postmodern figures such as Derrida is the jump from “there can be no dominant ideology” to “Marxism is the only ethical approach.” I wish thinkers such as Peterson would bring this specific weak-point to light more explicitly.
You identify as a Classical humanist. I think there is an interesting point to be made here. Identifying as such is actually a fairly postmodern claim (e.g. “As a transgender feminist…” or “As an Asian-American…”) You recognize that you have a particular perspective. The fact that you identify this is good, because it allows you to recognize that you are approaching this conversation from a particular point of view. Now, you might find great use in being a Classical humanist, but perhaps this perspective also has certain limitations. A Classical humanist approaches ideas from a certain perspective. Does this not logically prevent you from approaching things from a perspective that lies outside of it? This is not to criticize the perspective of Classical humanism, but to point out that everyone has these perspectives that both allow them to see, but also limit what they see. We understand this quite well when we have a suspicion that there is something behind us, but we will never know until we turn our head, and change the angle from which we view our situation.
Having said this, your identification of this perspective is helpful in understanding where you’re coming from (a phrase that literally indicates you see things from somewhere different than me.) I am not well-read in the Renaissance humanists that you mention. However, I did not mean to say in my earlier response that postmodernists are responsible for understanding interpretation generally, but that they brought something new to the table. This stems from the field of phenomenological movement that really began with Edmund Husserl and continued on with Heidegger. I think the 20th-Century phenomenological method was a unique addition to the understanding of hermeneutics and interpretation. Most interesting to me is the Derridean idea that “there is nothing outside the text” — that we should understand even things that appear uninterpretable are just as interpretable as a text. But it is where he says “should” that we encounter the problem. More on this later.
Your statement that top-down deconstructions are often based on little to no experience outside the ivory tower of academe is an interesting one. I’m inclined to disagree, although I think I would need an example. Or perhaps we can define “top-down deconstructions?” If you agree with my example of Peterson’s psychological exposition of Genesis as being “top-down” (or if you disagree, at least we many agree that it is in the same vein as a “feminist critique” of a text, to use a more postmodern example?) I think we would both agree he has valuable experience outside of the ivory tower that has influenced how he thinks about these stories and makes his thoughts more valuable. (Also, a new book by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule gets into this idea of balancing experience and study quite nicely.)
I agree that a core problem of postmodern studies is their almost singularly leftist angle, especially considering that their foundational thoughts often make it impossible to prize a single worldview or value over another. This is the great hypocrisy of postmodernism: Derrida, for example, offers on the one hand a linguistic tool that allows any worldview to be broken down and leveled out with the rest, but on the other hand lifts up this particular worldview so completely. I think it’s quite likely that Derrida found that it’s not easy to live out a deconstructionist philosophy. And of course, we must not forget that we speak of “Derrida” as if he is a singular concept, but his views and writings changed significantly over his forty-year writing career, and he became increasingly political as he got older, whereas his deconstructionist views are some of his earliest philosophical workings. I think this condensing of a lifetime’s ebb and flow into a single idea/concept explains some of the apparent hypocrisy we see in postmodernism.
I would also agree that many of the postmodernists I meet and talk with today are ideologically-driven. I had a fascinating conversation with a self-identified postmodernist a few weeks ago, and he insisted that there can be no relational meaning (I.e. meaning between two subjects) while sitting next to his romantic partner! The hypocrisy (and perhaps a good measure of irony!) was, it seemed, completely lost on him. I think this speaks to these fields not having developed “organically.”
You mention that Lacan and Derrida are more interested in language games than a “love of wisdom.” I think this is a fascinating comment. Do you think that the two have any potential overlap? And, of course, the term “language games” makes me jump to Wittgenstein — no postmodernist by any means — and his writings about language games. His philosophy is of course extremely important, valuable, and highly-prized on both sides of the philosophical divide (analytical v. continental.)
I agree to some extent with Chomsky’s quote. However, I would actually expand it from just “French intellectual life” to almost all of mainland Europe. I would also like to point out that it’s perhaps surprising that the general group of people who prefer communist ideas are seen as towering individuals of philosophy, and the Anglo-American philosophical culture that is decidedly less communistic and lives within some of the most individualistic cultures is skeptical of “popular” philosophers!
As to the texts being unnecessarily difficult… I’ve always found this criticism hard to engage with. On the one hand, I often find these thinkers impenetrable. But on the other hand, it feels like an excuse not to really engage with the text. How has “it’s too complicated and difficult to read” become a valid philosophical criticism? I’m reminded of a couple of lines from the musical Hamilton where Jefferson is criticizing Hamilton’s plan for a national bank. Jefferson says, “and it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand!” Well, this was more due to Hamilton’s genius than whatever Jefferson’s trying to criticize. And it turned out to be a genius plan. And are we to pretend that other philosophy is necessarily easy to understand? I don’t hear the writings of Kierkegaard criticized as being too difficult, too unnecessarily complex (even though it may be a valid description!) We should distinguish, I think, between describing something’s difficulty and complexity, and criticizing it for being so.
There is also the issue of translation. Heidegger, for example, is famous for using his own words (combinations of other German words) in his text, making it very difficult to translate into English, even though I’m told it makes for quite beautiful, poetic reading in German (though still not necessarily easy.)
As to what you see as the “most pernicious aspects” of postmodernism, I do agree with you. I think a smart postmodernist will not destroy all meta-narratives and say “well, there’s nothing left now. Enjoy!” Rather, the postmodernist is warning that these meta-narratives may be unnecessarily limiting our view — we should question the meta-narrative that we have been brought up in — not destroy them completely. Unfortunately, these does seem to play out in an avoidance of the Great Books (usually due to their being written by “Dead White Men”) rather than an engagement with them in order to do their beloved deconstruction. I think this is a serious issue with the “postmodernism” we see today — it does not take itself seriously! It does not truly understand itself. This is why I say “Postmodernity against ‘Postmodernity’” — but I think “‘Postmodernity’ against Postmodernity” would be equally true.
At the beginning of this response, I mentioned a difference between “hyper”modernity and “post”modernity. I think most “postmoderns” that I meet and read today are the former, not the latter. In attempting to reject modernism’s singular truth and objectivity, the hypermodern becomes so taken with the idea of postmodernity (“all truth is equal,” “there is not single truth,” “truth is relative,” and so on) that it takes this idea and makes it the singular truth! “If you do not agree with me that all truths are equal, you are wrong!” This is hypermodernity in a nutshell. I think this thinking comes from the idea of “power relations.” The trouble is that no one wants to believe that they have the power (it seems the only ones who cannot make an argument is the white men.) And so in any conversation I have with someone with “less power” than I, my truth is less valuable because I’m a white male. This is contrary to the truly postmodern idea that, though I may have “more power” in the situation, my truth is no more important or “true” than the most-marginalized person in the room. This is something I can agree with, and would describe as truly postmodern rather than the hypermoderns that use the guise of postmodernity to their own end.
And to briefly reference Peterson’s rejection of postmodernism: while there’s much I enjoy from what he has to say, I often find a surprising lack of nuance when he speaks of postmodernism. His flat rejection only speaks of very specific aspects. My idea of his rejection is that he is (rightly) rejecting hypermodernity, but because the hypermoderns present themselves as postmoderns, he also mislabels them, and true postmodernity suffers as a result.