Since I started getting more active on Twitter I’ve had front row seats to the best intellectual slapfights no money can buy. It’s interesting and frustrating.
What’s hot right now in my bubble and its warzone-laden borderlands is arguing about “postmodernism”. The pattern is that people complain about the latest social justice-related spat and uses the word “postmodernism” or related terms like “postmodernist neo-marxism” or even “cultural marxism” (they all mean the same thing) and then other people criticize or mock them for not understanding what postmodernism is — and therefore they’re wrong about everything. Unproductive discussion results.
This bothers me. It’s partly for erisological reasons — it’s a typical case of dysfunctional disagreement — and partly becase I hate seeing arguments I’m fundamentally sympathetic to being presented in a weak form. It’s like watching somebody hurt themselves.
Because I am sympathetic to those who complain about “postmodernism”, perhaps a little too sympathetic for someone who takes pride in trying to be fair and charitable. The part of me stretching from the heart to the groin certainly does want to join the shouting, but my prefrontal cortex says no. I’ve spent too much time and effort learning to recognize disagreement patterns to not notice when “my side” is engaging in some dodgy argumentation. Part of it is integrity *thumps chest*, but another part is recognition of a tactical mistake: sloppy use of terms like “postmodernism” or to specialists weird hybrids like “postmodern neo-marxist” gives people a free excuse to reject what you say.
Once I wrote this warning against rhetorical overreach when arguing:
If you want to make someone change their mind through sheer force of argument there must be no way for them to think that you’re wrong. It’s entirely possible to stay committed to a claim only a little bit true, since you can perfectly legitimately disagree with anyone who dismisses it completely. Do not give anyone a reason to dismiss you, such as (1) pretending you’re 100% right when you’re not, or (2) pretend someone else is 100% wrong when they aren’t.
Solution 1: Make sure your opponent is completely and verifiably wrong. This is much harder that it appears, because being 99% wrong is not enough.
Solution 2: Make an effort to understand what they mean and acknowledge their damn point. Understand (and empathize with) why it makes sense to them, preferably without condescension. Then help them understand yours.
Its good argumentation tactics to avoid making points where you can be criticized 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 make those in the know think exactly that, and reject otherwise reasonable points.
As a remedy we should make explicit what this non-technical sense is. I’ll get to that, but first I’ll say what I think postmodernism is and isn’t. It (fittingly) seems to be one of the most slippery words in existence.
What “postmodernism” means
I offer a flawed and simplified explanation because I’m no expert and my own education only touched the outermost borders of actual postmodernism. The topic is a matter of personal interest to me (mostly because I really can’t deal with there being important things I don’t understand) and I have learned enough to know that it’s more complicated than it appears and more complicated than I think it is.
With that out of the way: 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. It was handed down to us by tradition and not in our hands.
Modernity upended all that. From the renaissance on, through the birth 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.
Or rather: Progress! Scientific knowledge and the power unleashed by industry will remake the world! We can apply scientific analysis to find out how the world works and organize it Rationally and Correctly! It’s amazing! And make no mistake (no really, don’t): it really was. But there were limits, and there were pitfalls. Things weren’t as easy as they appeared. 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. 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 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. That 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.
We’re all postmodernists now?
When you like me were born a few years after the publication of The Postmodern Condition (Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1979) it’s even harder to understand postmodernism because you’re born into it and you 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 cultural upbringing.
I guess I’m a postmodernist by birth. Yeah… and? When ultimate, satisfying answers to Life, Society, the Universe and Everything aren’t in the cards — and my generation has grown up in that cultural milieu — the important part becomes not whether or not something achieves or fails to achieve perfect knowledge but its degree of partial validity. 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 in the resulting gestalt.
The only way press on without denial or loss of hope is to gather more partials, keep them on file and train yourself to switch between them so quickly that you can simulate something approaching a complete model. This approach isn’t sexy and you’ll go without that rush of clarity that Atlas Shrugged or Das Kapital offers the precocious teenager with a left- or right-wing temperament awaiting ignition, as well as that comfortably detached smugness that comes with being a lazy relativist. But to me it’s the only defensible choice.
The funny thing is that this is eminently compatible with the findings of natural science, and the hostility between the two is 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 well to the scale on and they way in which hard science works. Hard science remains immensely successful and hasn’t burned itself out the way philosophy keen on Grand Narratives did. Its world show no particular signs of not making sense.
I think we should read postmodern-style criticism of science as referring primarily to its inability to give us answers on the scale and of the kind we want. But if that’s fed to a generation who’s never believed such a thing to begin with, we risk overapplying the criticisms 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 common in the 1950s and ’60s seem cartoonish today, and to me it always has. And the premodern ideas of people being born into social classes and This Is How It’s Supposed To Be, or the world viewed through the lens of The Great Chain of Being etc. are positively exotic.
Saying “don’t think you know everything” to someone who don’t think they do risks coming over as “don’t think you know anything“. It certainly did for me. This is bad.
Pointing out the limitations of science, rationality and objectivity is fine, and such criticism is often valid and extremely important. But it is, to use the terminology from The Signal and the Corrective a corrective to naivety, not a viable stance by itself. And if you get to learn a corrective without first absorbing what it’s meant to be a corrective to, you’re going to hear it the wrong way. It doesn’t have the effect it’s meant to have and it isn’t among the top ten things most of us actually need to hear.
I think that’s happened to many youngish radicals and relativists: many are taught these kinds of ideas — filtered through a political lens — and miss that they’re tempering something, not overturning it. Modernist ideas like objectivity, science, rationality etc. are still largely correct — it’s just that there are limits, and acting like there’s no validity to postmodern-style critiques is dumb.
Postmodernism as a snarl word
Any ideology which is coherent is not, strictly speaking, postmodernist. Archetypal postmodernists go from despair over a conceptual world in shambles to a detached, playful and trollish attitude, often refusing to stake out positions and instead preferring 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 suitably be read both as rootlessly nihilistic and joyfully free.
A lot of things referred to as postmodernist don’t fit this bill. Marxism certainly doesn’t — it’s 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 come with definite convictions. They make claims, they have moral agendas, and they construct conceptual systems. A relaxed, nihilistic playfulness isn’t one of their most obvious characteristics either.
Unfortunately efforts like “you shouldn’t use this word this way because it isn’t technically correct you guys” don’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’s actually meant by it.
It’s used by its critics as a label on a set of ideas and attitudes with a family resemblance relation to each other and to “postmodernism proper.” It’s use is strikingly similar to that of other boogeymen like “patriarchy” and “capitalism”: it’s not one big phenomenon but many small ones in a trenchcoat.
In my experience, the list looks something like this:
Activist scholarship that’s more concerned with advocacy than knowledge.
The idea that it’s okay to be how political and biased as you want because everything is political anyway.
Public debate is ideas fighting a war against each other and non-rational means are acceptable. Indeed, insisting on rational rules and objective standards is nothing but a attempt to gain the upper hand.
The attitude that science, rationality and logic holds no special status as means of inquiry, often by referring to it as male, white and western, in contrast to its professed universality.
Identity politics as described in A Deep Dive into the Harris-Klein Controversy. I.e. that oppressed groups are owed agreement with their views, backed by an idea 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 reality is.
Everything is about power. For example, scientific truth is the outcome of social processes and reflect the biases of the winners, not actual truth.
The structure of society is not a given and arguments justifying the status quo is simply the ruling groups trying the justify their privileges.
Things are “socially constructed”, which can mean many things depending on what the thing is, but the central case is when categorization/conceptualization of people, events or contexts creates the appropriate behaviors rather than them being there from the start.
It’s cultural and ideological forces that causes social problems, not material limitations or human nature.
There is no “human nature” worth considering.
Individual wants are mediated by culture to such an extent that they become untrustworthy.
A focus on relationships as more fundamental than entities.
An unwillingness to pass judgement 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 interpretation of experiences and communication is always correct. Intent does not determine meaning.
People’s own view of themselves are 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 criticism.
No culture is better than any other. This often includes the hypocritical exception of western civilization, which is bad.
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 occur both in many of the academic disciplines I mentioned (and many more) and in public discourse. They are not all the same thing, they don’t come out of the same intellectual traditions, and some of them are certainly not new to the 20th century. Many to most of them are older than The Postmodern Condition and its immediate influences.
So from inside the academy, to people familiar with the specific histories of academic ideas and the context in which they were developed, they look very different from each other and they look very different from their vulgarized counterparts in the pomoid cluster. 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, when ideas are viewed from the outside — and especially when they start spreading from non-expert to non-expert — they get simplified and rendered in much lower resolution. Then a cluster with internal divisions and contradictions will look more like a single blob, where only the most salient and politically charged features from all over the network can be made out.
The most obvious qualities of this blob is 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 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 technical relationships to 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 it rather clearly as the rejection of a list of modernist assumptions (objective reality, definite meaning, certain knowledge, moral realism, progress, universalism, that kind of stuff).
Essentially we have a situation where some people are complaining about a forest not being like a city, rebuffed by people living in it insisting that pine trees, rocks, moss, squirrels and the sound of a babbling brook are entirely different things and you can’t talk about it like that, you uncredentialed buffoon.
Petty territorialism aside, underneath lies a 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 taken out, generalized, washed of their origins 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 time, or is an idea a set, a general pattern that applies to many things in the world?
I predict that 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 (which is ironically a highly un-postmodern attitude!) and complain about people bastardizing it by removing all the texture that make it what it is. I sympathize, I really do — as a data analyst who lived through a few years of the phrase “big data” coming out of the mouths of people who couldn’t tell SQL from XML I know the feeling.
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. He’s right of course, but the argument misses its target by assuming that all use of “marxism” or “postmodern” is meant in a fully detailed, technical sense. Instead they tend to be used like normal words often are: half-metaphorically with only some of their properties and associations active. It’s like calling some sad thing a “tragedy” even though it, strictly speaking, isn’t a Greek morality play that ends with the protagonist in ruin due to a fatal character flaw.
It’s a common pattern. This article about “romanticism” shows how that word is similar. In reality a complex movement consisting of individual, nuanced thinkers reacting in different ways to their historical circumstances, yet in the popular consciousness it’s simplified and unified — AND the word is often used non-technically and disconnected from its historical roots to represent certain common ideas and attitudes.
McManus ends his article with this advice/admonition (advinition?):
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.
They are indeed. But that isn’t the takedown it’s supposed to be, because those caricatures and strawmen do exist and you need to be able to talk about them. It’s just hard to criticize them accurately because they have no identifiable source or definition; no one made them in their current form. It’s guerilla warfare, which is difficult, so people tend to have a go at whatever official-looking institution they can find nearby.
Since it tends to be simplified, decontexualized and often vulgarized versions of ideas that spread in society and actually has an effect on it, 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.
That’s why I think sloppy use of “postmodernism” is, while uncomfortable, ultimately acceptable. Just prefacing it with “vulgar” to tip off insiders about what sense your using the word would go a long way. At the same time, insiders should take the other side of McManus’s advice and remember that outsiders often mean it in a non-technical way, and if you use that as a point of attack you’re going to be talking past each other.
• • •
With a slight difference in emphasis. “Postmodernism” often focuses on the hostility to objectivity and “cultural marxist” on the collectivist, conflict-based political vision. “Postmodern neo-marxism” is the whole package.
I’ve been asked what I mean by this central erisological concept and it’s a fair question. A dysfunctional disagreement is when a disagreement is fuelled by at least one of the parties intentionally or unintentionally misunderstanding either the other party’s position or the nature of their difference.
There’s also postmodernism in art and design, which is related to postmodernist philosophy in that it plays with styles, categorizations, scripts, expcetations, decontexualized elements etc. I won’t focus on that here, nor on the “mixing images and elements” facet of postmondernism or it’s implications for personal lifestyle.
There’s a distinction between modernism/postmodernism and modernity/postmodernity that I’m not going to respect right now, but the -isms are more or less the collections of ideas characterizing their respective historical periods (the -ity:s).
That’s the zoomed out view. “On the ground”, this all came about through many detailed and technical critiques of earlier detailed and technical modernist philosophy. A counterpoint to modernist faith in our ability to comprehend the nature of reality, for example, is that reality does not so much cause our understanding of it as much as its “constructed” by our actions. In this view “reality” is to be understood primarily as social reality, as a conceptual system made up of of symbols, institutions and relationships that in turn construct our internal scripts for patterns of action, causing social structures to reproduce themselves. Signs, words and categories form structures out of sand; they don’t have fixed meanings or definitions and they don’t refer to an objective reality but a constantly shifting set of shared associations. The postmodern era is marked by subversion, decontextualization and recombination of signs and meaning, as concrete reality is increasingly displaced by culturally generated images. Sound vague? Yeah. It’s hard to summarize something that’s essentially the amorphous gestalt of a handful of fiercely anti-labelist scholars’ work.
Another way to say this is that we no longer can believe in literary-style narratives about the real world. Lyotard says:
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives … The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language.
In one of my first posts I talk about how I’ve never really felt that way about the world.
Maybe this is too generous. Maybe I’m stuck in my own intellectual bubble and miss much of the naive modernism still out there. Certainly there are some pockets.
It’s clear however, 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 was born reacting against but they’ve never actually lived with.
Ironically the po-mo approach suffers when not sufficiently applied to itself — the idea that there’s no universal truth but only partial accounts is itself a partial account.
The liberated man is not the one who is freed in his ideal reality, his inner truth, or his transparency; he is the man who changes spaces, who circulates, who changes sex, clothes, and habits according to fashion, rather than morality, and who changes opinions not as his conscience dictates but in response to opinion polls.
In 2018 I think the results are in and we can say with some confidence that this “liberated” personal ethos reminiscent of The Dice Man does not appeal to everyone.
A funny example of “someone’s modus ponens is someone else’s modus tollens”. If you insist that “science and rationality is particular to white men” it only reads as “progressive” if there’s also an automatic assumption that this obviously delegitimizes science and rationality instead of delegitimizing women and non-europeans, as it would’ve appeared coming out of dead white man’s mouth.
This is a perspective whose usefulness and accuracy varies a lot.
A solution to this apparent double standard is to say that you can’t pass judgement on a different culture than your own because justification lies in the cultural system as a whole, which you can’t understand as an outsider. But that has a bunch of problems like 1) you can usually understand the justifications for things reasonably well if you try; 2) “culture” isn’t well-defined and you can be extraordinarily self-serving with regards to what cultures/subcultures are considered separate (not to mention oppressed) and therefore protected from criticism; 3) it’s essentially a conservative argument for tradition (“culture knows better than you do”), which most people pushing it don’t want.
Make no mistake, there are versions of these ideas on the political right as well, among romantics, religionists, conspiracy theorists, manipulative plutocrats, whatever-denialists or just contrarians. They tend not to, however, be called postmodernists. Exceptions do exist, which is interesting because, clearly, large parts of the pomoid cluster can serve goals all over the political spectrum, just like objectivity can.
Compare this to the disagreement between people who considers “racism” to be a pattern of thought and behavior (a set of separate things), and people who consider it to be a historical institution (a single thing).