Postmodernism is back with a vengeance. Celebrated and despised, postmodernism is sometimes cast as the bogeyman of all that is wrong with the modern world or defended as exposing the shallowness of the modern world. Which is it?
There are multiple strands of postmodernism. For the sake of brevity, we will examine three; wherein the first two strands have explicit political overtures. First is the strand of postmodernism associated with French deconstructionism—the notorious culprit and the focus of criticism from the likes of Jordan B. Peterson. This postmodernism, by the standard of critics and proponents alike, purports to the illusory of truth, the inability to communicate, and that the result of this inability to derive truth and understanding—or the inability to communicate truth and therefore inability to have understanding—leads to a world of power conflict. Definitions do not matter because we can’t agree upon definitions. The first strand of postmodernism is an attack on empirical philosophy, Aristotelianism, and Scholasticism and all other philosophies that defend essences. This enters philosophy of language in a denial of the essence of language.
This “public face” of postmodernism is two things. First, it is a sort of neo-Sophistry returning to the ideas of Protagoras of pre-Socratic times. For as Protagoras famously said: There is no Truth; if there was Truth we could not know it; if we could know Truth (individually) we could never communicate it to others. Second, it is a sort of revised Augustinian deconstruction of cultural myths and systems akin to what the venerable bishop of Hippo had done in Confessions and City of God. Conventional postmodernism wants to have its cake and eat it too, in many ways; it claims there is no truth, or that truth could not be known and communicated, yet it busily embarks on its on campaign of deconstruction and systematic assertions to the contrary.
A second strand of postmodernism, associated with the general philosophy of romanticism, also a notorious culprit for all the ills afflicting the Enlightenment if you follow Jonah Goldberg, simply asserts the shallowness and hollowness of modern life. This second strand does not promote deconstructionism of the Derridean and Foucauldian sense; rather, it articulates the view that there is truth, but that truth is not embodied in modern ideology, outlook, and construction. Romantic postmodernism, faut de mieux, therefore stands in contrast to deconstructionist postmodernism or neo-sophist postmodernism of the first strand. We might consider this second-strand of systematic critique and deconstruction associated with postmodernism as an authentic Augustinianism which deconstructs prevailing the establishment mythos in a bid to show its hollowness in favor of something far more truthful.
If the first strand of postmodernism is more neo-Sophistry than it is cultural criticism and deconstruction, then the second strand of postmodernism is more cultural criticism and deconstruction than it is neo-Sophistry. Both stands of postmodernism, however, have a common foe that is focused on: Namely, individualist, rationalist, economistic, liberalism. Or in Marxian terms: liberal capitalism. In conservative and populist terms: corporate capitalism. Both seek to show the vacuousness of modern (i.e. liberal) philosophy and politics; but from there they diverge significantly.
Stephen R.C. Hicks, a philosopher, published a book called Explaining Postmodernism long before the rise of Jordan Peterson. Hicks’ thesis is not shocking. His assertion is that postmodernism grew up out of the rubble of orthodox Marxism; specifically, the May 1968 crisis and the long messianic expectation of Marxist intellectuals that the Marxist end of history would realize itself. This group of Marxist intellectuals, who had sided with the Soviet Union, were too embarrassed to admit their faults following the Soviet Union’s suppression of the democratic socialist uprising in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Growing discontent with the Stalinist project, coupled with Nikita Khrushchev’s public condemnation of the crimes of Stalin, led to a crisis of the intellectual left. The leftists who abandoned the Marxist project became the anti-Stalinist left—a phenomenon that was largely American and to a lesser extent English/British. The leftists who remained stalwarts of Marxism, mostly French and German, reorganized themselves around the Frankfurt School and psychoanalysis; becoming the “postmodernists” of literary and sociological fame. According to Hicks, this group of still pro-Soviet and Marxist intellectuals had to begin to play language games to defend orthodox Marxism while paradoxically undermining it at the same time. Thus, the birth of “post-Marxism.” Per Hicks, the postmodern Marxists inverted traditional Marxian language to save the Marxist hope. Peterson, who has cited Hicks, has more recently expanded this view of postmodernism.
Peter Augustine Lawler, a famous postmodern conservative before his death, argued in his book Postmodernism Rightly Understood, a different narrative of the rise of postmodernism—one that contemporary intellectuals, like Peterson, and celebrity online writers and pundits, like Goldberg, fail to recognize. Lawler asserted that postmodernism—especially in the American context—was really a return to “realism.” That is, a rejection of the naïve utopian idealism of postwar American liberalism; perhaps best typified (rightly or wrongly) by Francis Fukuyama. This postmodern realism is critical of liberal globalism as a front for empire; a topic that goes back to at least the writings of Carl Schmitt. Lawler’s postmodernism is, therefore, not the post-Marxist postmodernism that Hicks and Peterson critique; rather, it is a postmodernism that conservatives could latch onto—a devastating critique of the failure, excess, and shallowness of “Enlightenment liberalism.”
The third strand of postmodernism is more a literary movement than it is political. Postmodern literary criticism takes the subversive approach to textual analysis—most often to “reinterpret” the conventionally accepted understanding of texts in question. Now this often does lend itself to a sort of neo-Marxist interpretation of texts, but this type of textual revisionism is not solely the property of the far-left. The far-right also engages in, and benefits from, literary postmodernism in presenting revisionist interpretations of texts too. The most obvious example is rightwing critics and exegetes presenting counter-narratives of the “orthodox” reception of liberal texts: Namely that classical liberal philosophy leads to the wonders of the “rule of law,” “property rights,” and “tolerance,” etc.
This third strand of postmodernism, literary postmodernism, is also tied to deconstructionism. But the French deconstructionists were not the first to engage in textual criticism. Deconstruction of texts is an old literary enterprise which Greeks, Romans, and Christians engaged in during Antiquity and Late Antiquity. The deconstruction offered in literary postmodernism attempts at either showing the bankruptcy of the “orthodox” interpretation or show the actual meaning of the text that has been glossed over by propaganda, mythology, and ideology.
In fact, postmodernism is probably best understood as a form of revisionist literary criticism which then moves in a multitude of different, often uncontrollable, directions. In this respect, post-Marxist postmodernism and romantic postmodernism both owe their origins to literary postmodernism—for it is the impetus of literary revisionism which permitted the rise of both strands of politicized postmodernism to emerge; primarily through means of criticism toward the establishment post-Second World War consensus. Some postmodernists have certainly gone to the extreme—by deconstructing language altogether and arguing that there are no definitions and essences and therefore no means of communication other than power-imposition. Other postmodernists are simply post-modern in the sense that they critique modern life as hollow and generally meaningless; such persons may be on the left or right and offer succinct reasons as to why modern life is shallow and what should be done to counteract this.
Postmodernism is not as monolithic as its critics often portray or caricature it as. Moreover, postmodernism is “post-” (after) modern because all postmodernisms (however it manifests itself) consider the modern, liberal, “Enlightenment” ideology and mythos as bankrupt. It is true that leftwing postmodernism is the poster child of postmodernism. But there are many rightwing postmodern movements too. Many conservatives, in fact, may be more postmodern than meets the eye.