Why are we blaming postmodernism for Trump?

Postmodern critiques of the president are plentiful — but they’re not really telling us anything new.

Why are we blaming postmodernism for Trump?

Postmodern critiques of the president are plentiful — but they’re not really telling us anything new.

Eight months into 2017, the most famous postmodernist in America is no longer Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, or Charlie Kaufman, but Donald Trump. Chalk this superlative up to the “Against Postmodernism” think-piece machine, a decades-old genre supercharged by Trump’s improbable ascendency. Its moves are familiar. We find, in each essay, postmodernism resurrected, blamed for the pitfalls of contemporary politics or culture, and, finally, exorcised. Refer, for example, to Jeet Heer, who in the New Republic claims that Trump’s political emergence was only possible in a postmodern culture that privileges watching, staring, and shallow meanings. To Casey Williams in The New York Times and Salon’s   Conor Lynch, it was postmodern philosophy that put the “alternative” in “alternative facts.” And for David Ernst in The Federalist (for God’s sake), Trumpism represents a clever appropriation of the postmodern anti-hero, a character who knows the relativity of truth, the subjectivity of morals, and the power of narratives. If postmodernism had an avatar, it would be the zombie — more Shaun of the Dead than Dawn, though: a creature whose only purpose is to be beaten haphazardly back to the grave.

In the broader, post-election discourse, left-wing criticism has been doing its damndest to pinpoint the intellectual history of the alt-right. The most impressive of these projects are the most precise: in the Times, an investigation into the influence of Julius Evola — one of the few Nazi-affiliated philosophers not named Heidegger or Schmitt — on Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon; in The New Yorker, a triangulation of the political science department at Claremont McKenna College, the Heritage Foundation, and an anonymous online journal; in The Atlantic, an introduction to the ubiquity of conspiracy theories in American politics. But when it comes to Trump, a man who flaunts his aversion to books, there is no such thing as intellectual influence. And so, the postmodernism zombie.

It’s easy to reject this genre as specious, a hot take on politics laden with academese. Which is, I think, why it’s so useful for unpacking the state of cultural criticism. What the postmodernism zombie has to offer is insight into the very real pressures that dictate academically informed writing in the Trump era.

Rare Gratitude

When it comes to Trump, a man who flaunts his aversion to books, there is no such thing as intellectual influence.

While it wasn’t the first, the most successful piece to link postmodernism to right-wing skepticism was sociologist Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” The reverberations of Latour’s essay are felt deeply in the recent discourse, especially in articles like Williams’ and Lynch’s. At the same time “global warming” was being stricken from EPA reports by the Bush administration, Latour questioned whether his distrust of “scientific fact” might have inadvertently enabled someone like Frank Luntz, the messaging consultant famous for rebranding “global warming” as the more palatable “climate change.” “The mistake we made, the mistake I made,” Latour wrote, “was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible.” What Latour describes here is a hallmark of what is now broadly defined as “postmodern theory.” The postmodernist, rather than critiquing a given concept (usually of experience, culture, or knowledge) on its own merits, will show that it rests on a foundation too shaky to be trusted.

On this basis, the anti-postmodernists blame the French. The essays I’ve mentioned bring together a predictable cast of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Debord, and Lyotard, philosophers who all practiced, in varying and distinct ways, methodologies similar to the one described by Latour. Push the comparison too far, though, and you find that Trumpism fails to reflect any one thinker or school of thought. We are left instead with a bad impersonation of a “postmodern” disposition: a nihilism that is more The Big Lebowski than Nietzsche, a triumph of the imagination over reality, an edict that the best belief is a belief in nothing, that fact is a matter of choice.

This is nothing new — the postmodernism of public discourse has always been a Frankenstein’s monster of cultural grievances. As soon as “postmodernism” made its way into popular criticism, it became a catchall for whatever it was Christians, curmudgeons, and conservatives were adjusting to. This isn’t the error it sounds like, though. What the critique of postmodernism shows, in tandem with the scholarship, is that “postmodernism” is a descriptive term, one that simply names, depending on how you see it, an evolving or devolving culture. Rarely, if ever, has “postmodernism” been used to advocate the valueless, supremely relative society its critics fear. I have yet to meet a card-carrying postmodernist, and I don’t expect to anytime soon.

Trumpism fails to reflect any one thinker or school of thought.

The “Against Postmodernism” essay challenges a culture represented by no one (no one, that is, besides the Postmodernist-in-Chief, whom I somehow can't imagine reading these things). It belongs to a genre so one-sided it cannot help but fail the “They say/I say” test of freshman comp. And yet, for all its limitations, the genre shows no signs of slowing. What gives?

The explanation is in academic priorities. Keep in mind, the postmodernism zombie owes its animation to journalists schooled in critical theory, early-career professors, and graduate students (like myself). The latter two occupy a universe of professional humanities research characterized by a scarcity of hirings and declining student enrollment. One repercussion of the ongoing “humanities crisis” has been a change in the nature of professional development. As more and more departments are looking to challenge the Ivory Tower stereotype, public intellectualism has become an increasingly sexy qualification. And for graduate students pondering life beyond the tower, writing for the public offers a new professional lifeline.

The return to public engagement is a good thing. I’m hardly alone in believing that if the humanities are to have a future, then public-first projects are vital. But a public profile has its risks. The wrong politics, captured in the wrong tweet, can cost you your job. Enter the postmodernism zombie, a monster sophisticated enough to be the target of intellectual critique, and one that everyone, left and right alike, is eager to see buried.

For the left, capital-T Truth (or “enlightenment values”) is back in vogue. The feeling for progressives is that if democracy is under assault by alternative facts, then its survival may well depend on acts of truth-telling. Reza Ziai, a lecturer at City University of New York, is right to point out, as he did in Areo Magazine, that “The problem with having a negative attitude towards an empirical viewpoint is that doing so then makes it justifiable to limit people’s rights.” And with the U.S. still questioning its complicity in climate change, it’s no exaggeration to call the fate of the planet a matter of facts. Never in American history has the idea of “speaking truth to power” been less metaphorical. So in battling postmodern factlessness, academics publicize their commitments not only to progressive causes, but also to the truth-based thinking at the heart of recent progressivism. At the same time, however, postmodernism veers its critics to the right. Zombie-slayers are eager to get political, but not so into the weeds of identity politics that they risk setting off the right’s anti-higher ed tinderbox. According to a recent Pew poll, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the direction of the country. Central to this trend is an anti-political correctness mania that disguises critiques of diversity as defenses of free speech. For the anti-PCer, the humanities are one part useless, one part fanatical: a liberal playpen where socialists keep busy by policing each other’s sentences. In 2015, Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper earned himself a moment in the spotlight for suggesting as much in his letter to the student body “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” And then there’s the Breitbart universe, where humanities scholarship amounts to a glut of unread papers written by professors claiming trans-species identities.

The crusade against political correctness is a continuation of the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s and 2000s.

Arguments not far removed from these (though somewhat easier on the hyperbole) have been gaining traction in professorial circles, too. Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who’s been making the rounds on left-leaning podcasts, attributes Democrats’ alienation of white, working-class voters to an obsession with race, gender, and sexuality that is born and bred in higher education. He singles out, in his recent critique of identity politics, “An ideology institutionalized in colleges and universities that fetishizes our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any application of a universal democratic ‘we.’” Likewise, Frank Furedi, professor emeritus at the University of Kent, claimed in an Los Angeles Times op-ed that a “safe space” culture organized around lines of identity represents nothing less than “de facto cultural segregation” (check the comments section of any article in support of student politics to find the same sentiments). It was not the students, after all, who coined the term “Generation Snowflake.”

In one sense, the crusade against political correctness is a continuation of the “culture wars” of the 1990s and 2000s. The recent firestorm ignited by a gender-neutral pronoun guide at the University of Tennessee is not far removed from the controversy that surrounded queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” a 1989 conference paper that highbrow conservative commentator Roger Kimball called out in his thrice-reprinted Tenured Radicals. The long-standing enemy, for both anti-PCers and culture warriors, is a baseless, unrealistic, and unnatural thinking that seems awfully close to “postmodernism.” It’s worth recalling that well into the culture wars, the philosopher Richard Rorty used “postmodern professors” as shorthand for his colleagues in critical race theory, women’s and gender studies, and the like. To describe postmodernism as an outmoded, senseless philosophy is also, then, to accept the right’s caricature of the humanities. The critic of postmodernism is keen to suggest, “I’m not one of them.”

Isn’t it disheartening — how quick we are to sacrifice postmodernism at the altar of politics? Solipsistic thinking is a real danger, especially in the hands of a far-right government. I have a hard time disagreeing with Helen Pluckrose, a left-leaning critic of identity politics, who writes in Areo that “The freedom to ‘interpret’ reality according to one’s own values feeds into the very human tendency towards confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.”

Still, that doesn’t sound like postmodernism to me; it’s more Fight Club than Foucault. Postmodernism doesn’t tell us that alt-facts are the same as facts; it tells us that both facts and alt-facts come from specific, real sites of production that deserve to be investigated. If postmodernism is guilty of anything as of late, it’s telling us what is already, painfully, apparent. But at its best, postmodernism offers something essential: a key to mapping the complex terrain on which the many falsehoods of the Trump era are manufactured.

Aaron Colton is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Virginia.
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