The most influential thinkers of the last half century are an obscure group of French philosophers — Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and possibly others like Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. They are The Postmodernists…duh-duh DUHHHHH! — and they pose a fundamental threat to western civilization — to free speech, reason, science, to the idea of the individual and universal values, to liberalism itself.
At least, that’s the view put forward by digital mullahs in the Culture Wars like Jordan Peterson, James Lindsay and Stephen Hicks. Peterson, in this 2017 talk, is so angry he can barely speak, but he manages to spit: ‘It’s not optional to know about them. It’s crucial. The postmodernists completely reject the structure of western civilization….and you’re funding them with your tax dollars.’
Or Stephen Hicks, a relatively obscure philosophy professor who has risen to prominence on right-wing and alternative media for his 2004 book Explaining Postmodernism (recommended by Peterson in the above talk), who likewise describes postmodernism as an existential threat to liberalism. Or James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose — two ex-academics who rose to fame for sending in fake and absurd critical theory articles to journals, some of which were accepted. They published a best-selling book last year called Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody. It says that postmodernism is a, if not the, dominant cultural tendency in western thought, and it radically rejects ‘the foundations upon which today’s advanced civilizations are built and consequently has the potential to undermine them’.
To me, this focus on postmodernism as a threat to western civilization on a par with Islamic Jihadism or the USSR is extraordinary. Postmodernism??
I studied English literature at Oxford in the late 1990s, and ‘literary theory’ was already on the way out, a quaint remnant of the 1970s and 1980s. Terry Eagleton — then the leading champion of literary theory in the UK — was already abandoning it for Aristotelian virtue ethics. I worked in the history department of a fairly social justice-y university for the last eight years. Foucault was certainly still influential, because he helped develop the fields of social, material and medical history. But Derrida? Lyotard? Lacan? Barthes? They have completely disappeared.
This is not to say that critics of Wokeism don’t have some valid points, not to mention a certain bravery for standing up to what is quite an authoritarian movement in the humanities, business and media. But simply as history of ideas, their thinking seems incredibly sloppy and partisan. This is what happens in war — truth is the first casualty, closely followed by balance, fairness and nuance.
These figures rose to fame as culture warriors, as tub-thumping pulpit preachers, the modern equivalent of Christopher Hitchens railing against religions in the Noughties. They are not really trying to be true, fair, accurate, let alone ‘peer reviewed’. They are being performative, polemical, rhetorical, to reach as wide an audience as possible and get in some good punches. They are themselves examples of a crisis in truth and values which, far from being a threat to liberalism, is in fact and has always been at the heart of it. I’ll come back to this.
What is postmodernism?
First, what is postmodernism? The term originally emerged in architecture, from a 1972 book called Learning from Las Vegas. Modernist architecture aims at grand uniform designs, like the geometric design of Brasilia, inspired by Corbusier. Postmodernist architecture is more in the spirit of Las Vegas — all kinds of styles lumped joyfully together, often humorously and ironically — a replica of the Eiffel Tower next to a pyramid next to a Renaissance palazzo next to Caesar’s Palace. A postmodernist film might be Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. They were self-referential, ironic, pastiche, about movies as much as about ‘life’. The scene where Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace dance in a Hollywood-lookalike diner, for example, pays ironic homage to John Travolta’s previous dance-offs in Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This sort of joyful, ironic PoMo could not be further from the deadly earnestness of today’s trans activism or Critical Race Theory.
PoMo in literary theory could refer to a 1970s group known as the post-structuralists, which includes Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. This group suggests, very roughly, that everything can be read and analysed as a cultural text — even wrestling, or the Simpsons (PoMo rejects the modernist distinction between high and pop art). And there is ‘nothing outside of the text’, as Derrida put it. There is no fixed interpretation of a text, only a set of ‘floating signifiers’ which can mean many different things to different people. There may be a dominant cultural interpretation of a text, but there will also be repressed or latent interpretations, which the punk deconstructionist can unmask or bring to light. Not necessarily to change the world — Derrida and Barthes didn’t seem much interested in that. Mainly to show off their own virtuosity as theorists. It’s true that Derrida’s deconstructions ended up trying to undermine all fixed meaning, leaving western civilization in a Nietzchean play of indeterminacy. But this got boring pretty quickly, and his star rapidly faded in the 1980s.
Postmodernism in philosophy was not a major movement at all, but could be tied to a 1979 book by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who suggested postmodernism was defined by an ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’, such as Marxism, scientific progress, or anything. In history, Michel Foucault developed a ‘critical history’ approach from Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, to analyse the power assumptions embedded in medical and disciplinary theory and institutions like the prison and the asylum.
Of all of these, Foucault probably has the most continued influence. That’s partly because he’s a good historian (although a scum-bag of an individual), and his books opened up rich fields of scholarship in the analysis of, say, the history of psychiatry, mental illness and how we define and enforce normality and wellness. But even he rarely gets voted into a list of academics’ top ten philosophers of the 20th century.
And yet, according to Peterson et al, these dastardly Frenchies are up there with Osama bin Laden as threats to western civilization. They are responsible for the triumph of Theory — for feminist theory, queer theory, post-colonial theory, critical race theory, fat theory, the religion of Woke, cancel culture, safe spaces, de-platforming, microaggressions, diversity training, pulling down statues, MeToo, Black Lives Matter, trans activism, the end of science, the collapse of liberal democracy, and the general denigration of western culture and demonisation of Straight White Men.
Who’d have guessed it! Jacques Derrida writes utterly obscure books about ‘differance’ and grammatology, and 50 years later he’s responsible for race riots. His books must be best-sellers, right? No? How strange.
Maybe, then, we’re being sold a conveniently simple myth, about a cabal of evil geniuses conspiring to bring down western civilization, and the heroes standing up to them. Maybe this happened before, in the 1980s, when right-wing commentators like William Lind turned the Frankfurt School into Grand Villains, and popularised the term ‘political correctness’ as part of a very successful political strategy against the Left. In other words, this is a clever and perennial strategy of the Right — construct a narrative of the evil influence of sinister foreign intellectuals (‘political correctness / Cultural Marxism / Postmodernism) and massively inflate their cultural impact as a way to get attention, create panic, and galvanize public opinion.
The Social Justice gospel
But wait….one cannot entirely dismiss the critique of Theory. It is certainly true that the humanities and social sciences in academia can be pretentious and jargonistic. It is also true that the humanities and social sciences have a left-wing bias — not a huge bias, but it’s there. It also has a critical bias — humanities academics tend to be pessimist problematizers. If you want an uplifting pep talk, go to business leaders, not humanities academics.
It’s also true that certain rights movements and identity movements have become very vocal and prominent in western universities, media and business, such as the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter (and Critical Race Theory) and trans rights. And sometimes these movements can be authoritarian — many public figures have been ‘cancelled’ (ie attacked, deplatformed or sometimes fired from their job) in the last few years for behaviour or a comment or tweet which is interpreted as racist, or homophobic, or misogynist, or transphobic.
In many circles of my life — academia, the media, spirituality — I have frequently heard phrases like ‘it’s time for white men to sit down and shut up’, or ‘whiteness is the problem’ (the last line I heard on a panel I was on last month, exploring state violence and eugenics. I suggested that the tendency to divide humans into in-group and out-group, according to some characteristic like gender, caste, ethnicity, IQ or sexuality, was alas ubiquitous and not confined to white people. The moderator moderated me and said ‘I think it’s important we say whiteness is the problem and draw a line under it’).
While I agree that white supremacy is a genuine problem in western societies, I also think that you can lose nuance and accuracy if you collapse messy and complex reality into that one heroes and villains narrative. And dismissing or demonising a person because of the colour of their skin is racist and authoritarian, and we shouldn’t be bullied by it. And I also think some ideas which are quite far out — or rather, far left — are now taught as gospel in some humanities departments, schools or HR training courses.
I have respect, then, for academics (or ex-academics) who stand up to authoritarian thinking in the name of truth, fairness, nuance, reasoned argument, intellectual diversity and our right to disagree — all of which are core liberal values that I hold dear.
There is a story, which I will not go into here, about how diversity training emerged not from postmodernism but actually from Esalen, and the inter-racial encounter sessions it held in the late 1960s. These sessions were organized by a white journalist called George Leonard and a black psychiatrist called Price Cobbs, who wrote a book called Black Rage. Cobbs’ theory was that all whites are racist and all blacks are angry. Over intense 48-hour encounter sessions, the group would finally arrive at this foregone conclusion, hug, cry and come together. This Esalen programme fell apart when one of the black facilitators demanded more pay, was refused, then tried to get the person who refused fired for his racism. The founders of Esalen — Dick Price and Michael Murphy — saw this as a power play, which went against their central idea - ‘no one captures the flag’ — no one guru, religion or ideology dominates Esalen. So they refused and the programme at Esalen ended. But Cobbs went on to start the diversity training industry, with all its Esalen-esque focus on ‘doing the work’. It has indeed ‘captured the flag’ in some sectors and businesses.
So there is some truth in Linsday and Pluckrose’s critique that aspects of woke culture have become a religion which you cannot challenge without being accused of heresy. However, they have collapsed a complex landscape of competing and contradictory ideas into a highly simplistic Manichean narrative of Good versus Evil — just like some of the theorists they oppose. This is what happens in a culture war. Careful scholarship is replaced by propaganda.
The mischaracterisation of postmodernism
Postmodernism is a very loose term. Like ‘neoliberalism’, you can make it mean what you want it to mean, and cherry-pick the craziest opinions of your opponents to turn them into a monolithic and terrifying Enemy.
In Cynical Theories, Lindsay and Pluckrose say ‘postmodernism’ holds four core assumptions:
1) The blurring of boundaries (male / female, normal / deviant etc)
2) The power of language (everything is discourse)
3) Cultural relativism
4) Loss of the individual and the universal (everything is power, there is no such thing as objective science, everyone’s view depends on their race, gender, sexuality etc).
Firstly, this is not even a fair description of the four thinkers they characterize as the original postmodernists. Foucault was a highly individualist anarchist libertarian, interested in resisting and subverting all forms of ‘biopolitics’.
And it’s also absolutely not a description of what one finds in modern social justice movements like Critical Race Theory. There, you do not find the blurring of boundaries — instead, identities are reified into rigid categories (female / trans / black / white) etc or there are fights over who fits into a category (eg the feminist and trans fight over the category of ‘woman’). You do not find cultural relativism or the undermining of objective truth. On the contrary, there is one Holy and Absolute Truth — the truth of White supremacy and systemic racism, or the truth that trans women are women, and you either accept that Truth or you are a heretic. You do not find the sort of joyful and ironic semiotic play that Barthes, Derrida and postmodern aesthetics celebrate. Rather, the ‘truth’ of your words or gestures are however minority groups experience them. If they feel your words or gestures were offensive or violent, you better apologise or else.
Being generous, one could say that clearly different schools of theory owe something to thinkers like Michel Foucault. They are trying to unmask the implicit power assumptions beneath people’s values and culture. But this sort of ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is much older than Foucault — it goes back to Marx, to Freud, to Nietzsche. It’s strange, in fact, that Peterson doesn’t mention or criticize Nietzsche as perhaps the founding father of postmodernism. Is that because Nietzsche is such an important thinker for him as well?
The End of History and the crisis of liberalism
Where, then, do BLM, MeToo and other identity movements come from? Well, it’s complicated and nuanced, and very unlikely to emerge just from four French thinkers of the 1970s. Let me attempt to sketch an alternative theory, which is these movements emerge from liberalism rather than against it. It’s a sketch, just a suggestion, very possibly wrong. Here goes.
The cultural movement known as the Enlightenment rejected Christianity, and created a new faith system called Liberalism. This was based on certain foundational values declared as absolute and universal Truths — Liberty, Equality, Reason, Science, Progress and so on. Liberalism emerged out of Christianity and was in some ways a secular version of it. Its central myth was post-Christian — the liberation of the individual or a particular group from enslavement into a glorious rebirth.
William Blake’s depiction of humanity reborn after liberal revolutions
Initially, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this meant the liberation of humanity from the tyranny of kings and priests. Except critics pointed out these revolutions meant only the liberation of rich white men. So the revolution continued in the 19th century, with a new variant of the religion — the liberation of workers. And then, the liberation of women, the liberation of colonies, the liberation of African-Americans, the liberation of sexual minorities, the liberation of disabled people.
These waves of liberal religion, these religious awakenings, carried the same sort of post-Christian narrative — ‘I was enslaved and lost, but now I am awake, now I realize the Real Me, now I’m proud to come out as [proletarian / feminist / Black / gay / trans], and together with my awakened brothers and sisters work righteously for the kingdom of heaven, the purging of sin and the overthrow of Babylon’.
So these liberal movements, like Christianity, are very much about personal identity, feelings, self-realization, the redemption of humanity and the exorcism of demons.
But liberalism as a religious movement ends up in a cul-de-sac — what Nietzsche (and then Francis Fukuyama) called ‘the end of history’. There’s this great Abrahamic drive towards the kingdom of heaven, but what do you do when groups have been more or less liberated from slavery? You could try and export liberalism around the world, as neo-conservatives tried to do. Or you try and find new groups to liberate, however small — this explains the intense focus on the liberation of trans people, 0.6% of the population. Or you find new demons to oppose — a Halloween costume, a football mascot, a word, a gesture, a look. Because otherwise where do you go? What do you do?
The Death of God and the crisis of values
In addition, as Nietzsche pointed out, the Enlightenment and the Death of God created a philosophical and ethical crisis, a crisis of Truth, a crisis of authority. What do we ground truth and goodness on, if not God and the Bible?
On reason? What if reason is weak and self-motivated, as Nietzsche and evolutionary psychologists like Jonathan Haidt argued? On science? But can science overcome the ‘Is / Ought’ divide and give us meaning and values? What if scientists are biased and impose their biases onto less powerful groups (as they have throughout the history of science)? On rights? But do rights really exist or are they ‘nonsense on stilts’ as Jeremy Bentham insisted? Or how about identity — tribal identity, national identity, Frenchness or Britishness or the Proletariat or Black Power and so on?
This sort of identity politics has been at the heart of liberalism for 300 years! Nationalism — the turning of your nation into a sort of deity to be worshipped — was born out of the Enlightenment. So was Marxism, Feminism and so on.
Various liberal theorists, from Protagoras to Karl Popper to Jurgen Habermas, have concluded that in liberal societies there are no absolutes, no absolute moral values or absolute scientific truths. There is simply consensus — what a group of people agree are the right laws, the right values. That goes for science too, there is scientific consensus, peer review, an ever-shifting landscape of hypotheses.
If ‘man is the measure of all things’, as Protagoras insisted, then nothing is fixed, everything is up for discussion. So liberalism is a 2500-year-old discussion, sometimes a very angry and violent discussion. There is always a risk — as Plato, the first great enemy of liberalism, argued — that liberalism descends into demagoguery. ‘Truth’ and ‘Goodness’ become whatever the mob believe, and authority is given to whoever has the best rhetoric and the most followers.
At this historical moment, the public conversation of liberalism is taking place on the internet, and in particular on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. And, in the short term at least, this is making the public conversation so angry and vituperative that it’s actually harming liberalism, as a system for assessing reality, making decisions and peacefully sharing power.
What we need, in this time, is epistemic flexibility, slow and careful thinking, openness, gentleness and generosity to other perspectives within liberal society, and a wariness of demagogues who offer simplistic Othering narratives for clicks. Demagogues who offer fulmination rather than reflection, who help us to hate rather than making us think.
And that, I’m afraid, are what Jordan Peterson, James Lindsay and Stephen Hicks do. They are no friends of liberalism. They are fulminating demagogues, who offer simplistic and unfair generalizations to pander to the prejudices of their audience. They claim to be guardians of truth and academic standards, but none of their explanations of postmodernism would withstand peer review or pass the basic standards of academic rigour. They are de-institutionalized clickbait prophets, symptoms of the very crisis in ethics and authority over which they fulminate.
Lindsay, in fact, has now mutated from the Enemy of Wokeness to the Enemy of public health policies and the global vaccine drive, which he says is an evil conspiracy cooked up by power-mad technocrats to control the masses. As is climate science.
Michel Foucault would be proud!