There is a trend in conservative politics to blame postmodernism for everything that is wrong with America today. Meanwhile conservatives say a liberal who claims that anything is wrong with the USA should be exiled to communist Canada. Postmodernism in this context is not about art and architecture. It is a school of philosophy – more accurately, criticism – that not long ago was all the rage in liberal education and seems to have finally reached business and government. Right-wing authors tie it to identity politics, anti-capitalism, anti-enlightenment and wokeness. They’re partly right.
Postmodernism challenged the foundations of knowledge, science in particular, arguing against the univocity of meaning. Postmodernists think that there is no absolute truth, no certain knowledge. That’s not the sort of thing Republicans like to hear.
Deconstruction, an invention of Jacques Derrida, was a major component of heyday postmodernism. Deconstruction dug into the fine points of the relationship between text and meaning, something like extreme hermeneutics (reading between the lines, roughly). Richard Rorty, the leading American postmodernist, argued that there can be no unmediated expression of any non-linguistic entity. And what does that mean?
It means in part that there is no “God’s eye view” or “view from nowhere,” at least none that we have access to. Words cannot really hook onto reality for several reasons. There are always interpreters between words and reality (human interpreters), and between you and me. And we really have no means of knowing whether your interpretation is the same as mine. How could we test such a thing? Only by using words on each other. You own your thoughts but not your words once they’ve left your mouth or your pen. They march on without you. Never trust the teller; trust the tale, said D.H. Lawrence. Derrida took this much farther, exploring “oppositions inside text,” which he argued, mostly convincingly, can be found in any nontrivial text. “There is nothing outside the text,” Derrida proclaimed.
Derrida was politically left but not nearly as left as his conservative enemies pretended. Communists had no use for Derrida. Conservatives outright despised him. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt spent an entire chapter deriding Derrida for some inane statements he made about Einstein and relativity back before Derrida was anyone. In Higher Superstition – The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, they attacked from every angle, making much of Derrida’s association with some famous Nazis. This was a cheap shot having no bearing on the quality of Derrida’s work.
Worse still, Gross and Levitt attacked the solid aspects of postmodern deconstruction:
“The practice of close, exegetical reading, of hermeneutics, is elevated an ennobled by Derrida and his followers. No longer is it seen as a quaint academic hobby-horse for insular specialists, intent on picking the last meat from the bones of Jane Austen and Herma Melville. Rather, it has now become the key to comprehension of the profoundest matters of truth and meaning, the mantic art of understanding humanity and the universe at their very foundation.”
There was, and is, plenty of room between Jane Austen hermeneutics and arrogantly holding that nothing has any meaning except that which the god of deconstruction himself has tapped into. Yes, Derrida the man was an unsavory and pompous ass, and much of his writing was blustering obscurantism. But Derrida-style deconstruction has great value. Ignore Derrida’s quirks, his arrogance, and his political views. Ignore “his” annoying scare quotes and “abuse” of “language.” Embrace his form of deconstruction.
Here’s a simple demo of oppositions inside text. Hebrews 13 tells us to treat people with true brotherly love, not merely out of adherence to religious code. “Continue in brotherly love. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The Hebrews author has embedded a less pure motive in his exhortation – a favorable review from potential angels in disguise. Big Angel is watching you.
Can conservatives not separate Derrida from his work, and his good work from his bad? After all, they are the ones who think that objective criteria can objectively separate truth from falsehood, knowledge from mere belief, and good (work) from bad.
Another reason postmodernists say the distinction between truth and falsehood is fatally flawed – as is in fact the whole concept of truth – is the deep form of the “view from nowhere” problem. This is not merely the impossibility of neutrality in journalism. It is the realization that no one can really evaluate a truth claim by testing its correspondence to reality – because we have no unmediated access to the underlying reality. We have only our impressions and experience. If everyone is wearing rose colored glasses that cannot be removed, we can’t know whether reality is white or is rose colored. Thus falls the correspondence theory of truth.
Further, the coherence theory of truth is similarly flawed. In this interpretation of truth, a statement is judged likely true if it coheres with a family of other statements accepted as true. There’s an obvious bootstrapping problem here. One can imagine a large, coherent body of false claims. They hang together, like the elements of a tall tale, but aren’t true.
Beyond correspondence and coherence, we’re basically out of defenses for Truth with a capital T. There are a few other theories of truth, but they more or less boil down to variants on these two core interpretations. Richard Rorty, originally an analytic philosopher (the kind that studies math and logic and truth tables), spent a few decades poking all aspects of the truth problem, borrowing a bit from historian of science Thomas Kuhn. Rorty extended what Kuhn had only applied to scientific truth to truth in general. Experiments – and experience in the real world – only provide objective verification of truth claims if your audience (or opponents) agree that it does. For Rorty, this didn’t mean there was no truth out there, but it meant that we don’t have any means of resolving disputes over incompatible truth claims derived from real world experience. Applying Kuhn to general knowledge, Truth is merely the assent of the relevant community. Rorty’s best formulation of this concept was that truth is just a compliment we pay to claims that satisfy our group’s validation criteria. Awesome.
Conservatives cudgeled the avowed socialist Rorty as badly as they did Derrida. Dinesh D’Souza saw Rorty as the antichrist. Of course conservatives hadn’t bothered to actually read Rorty any more than they had bothered to read Derrida. Nor had conservatives ever read a word from Michel Foucault, another postmodern enemy of all things seen as decent by conservatives. Foucault was once communist. He condoned sex between adults and consenting children. I suspect some religious conservatives secretly agree. He probably had Roman Polanski’s ear. He politicized sexual identity – sort of (see below). He was a moral relativist; there is no good or bad behavior, only what people decide is good for them. Yes, Foucault was a downer and a creep, but some of his his ideas on subjectivity were original and compelling.
The conservatives who hid under their beds from Derrida, Rorty and Foucault did so because they relied on the testimony of authorities who otherwise told them what they wanted to hear about postmodernism. Thus they missed out on some of the most original insights about the limitations of what it is possible to know, what counts as sound analytical thinking, and the relationship between the teller and the hearer. Susan Sontag, an early critic of American exceptionalism and a classic limousine liberal, famously condemned interpretation. But she emptied the tub leaving the baby to be found by nuns. Interpretation and deconstruction are useful, though not the trump card the postmodernism founders originally thought they had. They overplayed their hand, but there was something in that hand.
Postmodernists, in their critique of science, thought scientists were incapable of sorting through evidence because of their social bias, their interest, as Marxists like to say. They critically examined science – in a manner they judged to be scientific, oddly enough. They sought to knock science down a peg. No objective truth, remember. Postmodern social scientists found that interest pervaded hard science and affected its conclusions. These social scientists, using scientific methods, were able to sort through interest in the way that other scientists could not sort through evidence. See a problem here? Their findings were polluted by interest.
When a certain flavor of the vegan, steeped in moral relativism, argues that veganism is better for your health, and, by the way, it is good for the planet, and, by the way, animals have rights, and, by the way, veganism is what our group of social activists do…, then I am tempted to deploy some deconstruction. We can’t know motives, some say. Or can we? There is nothing outside the text. Can an argument reasonably flow from multiple independent reasons? We can be pretty sure that some of those reasons were backed into from a conclusion received from the relevant community. Cart and horse are misconfigured.
Conservatives didn’t read Derrida, Foucault and Rorty, and liberals only made it through chapter one. If they had read further they wouldn’t now be parroting material from the first week of Postmodernism 101. They wouldn’t be playing the village postmodernist.
Foucault, patron saint of sexual identity among modern liberal academics, himself offered that to speak of homosexuals as a defined group was historically illiterate. He opined that sexual identity was an absurd basis to form one’s personal identity. They usually skip that part during protest practice. The political left in 2021 exists at the stage of postmodern thought before the great postmodernists, Derrida and crew, realized that the assertion that it is objectively true that nothing is objectively true is more than a bit self-undermining. They missed a boat that sailed 50 years back. Postmodern thought, applied to postmodernism, destroys postmodernism as a program. But today its leading adherents don’t know it. On the death of Postmodernism with a capital P we inherited some good tools and perspectives. But the present postmodern evangelists missed the point where logic flushed the postmodern program down the same drain where objective truth had gone. They are like Sunday Christians, they’re the Cafeteria Catholics of postmodernism.
Richard Rorty, a career socialist, late in his life, using postmodern reasoning, took moral relativism to its logical conclusion. He realized that the implausibility of moral absolutism did not support its replacement by moral relativism. The former could be out without the latter being in. If two tribes hold incommensurable “truths,” it is illogical for either to conclude the other is equally correct. After all, each reached its conclusion based on the evidence and what that community judged to be sound reasoning. It would be hypocritical or incoherent to be less resolved about a conclusion, merely by knowing that a group with whom you did not share moral or epistemic values, concluded otherwise. That reasoning has also escaped the academic left. This was the ironic basis for Rorty’s intellectual defense of ethnocentrism, which got him, once the most prominent philosopher in the world, booted from academic prominence, deleted from libraries, and erased from history.
Rorty’s 1970’s socialist side does occasionally get trotted out by The New Yorker to support identify politics whenever needed, despite his explicit rejection of that concept by name. His patriotic side, which emerged from his five decade pursuit of postmodern thought, gets no coverage in The New Republic or anywhere else. National pride, Rorty said, is to countries what self-respect is to individuals – a necessary condition for self-improvement. Hearing that could put some freshpersons in the campus safe place for a few days. Are the kittens ready?
Postmodern sock puppets, Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty are condemned by conservatives and loved by liberals. Both read into them whatever they want and don’t want to hear. Appropriation? Or interpretation?
Derrida would probably approve. He is “dead.” And he can make no “claim” to the words he “wrote.” There is nothing outside the text.