Ever since Donald Trump won, an odd idea has repeatedly bubbled to the surface of political media: that it takes volumes of dense and complicated philosophy to explain one of the stupidest people to ever live. A whole genre of thinkpiece implies that Trump and his rise to power are either the result of, or explicable by, “postmodernism.” For those whose faith in the institutions of the American republic has been challenged by the boorishness of its current president, it may be comforting to search for a deeper meaning. It is tempting to imagine that contemporary turns of phrase like “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth” are expressions of a widespread shift in the human relationship to reality, rather than the gibberish of idiots who are telling lies.
It has been three years, and we are still stuck in this endless struggle with the definition of postmodernism and What It Means. Yesterday, a Vox piece by Sean Illing attempted, in the Vox style, to explain the whole thing once and for all. The article does correct some of the prevailing errors that often accompany media treatments of the subject. There is no strange assertion that postmodernism is a Marxist conspiracy, for example, and a distinction is recognized between a school of thought and the study of it. But the fundamental problem remains: this has nothing to do with anything.
The article, titled “The Post-Truth Prophets,” properly pushes back against claims that “postmodernism spilled out of the academy and seeped into the broader culture.” In the process, however, it makes some assumptions: that there is or was a movement or idea of postmodernism, that there are “postmodernists” or “postmoderns,” and that there is something postmodern about the Trump administration. “Some key postmodern thinkers reveled in the idea’s destabilizing power and opened the door to questioning the very notion of objective knowledge,” Illing writes.
The article is accompanied by a collage displaying Trump standing in front of a microphone, accompanied by two French philosophers: Jacques Derrida, leering over a chair, and Michel Foucault, shouting into a bullhorn. Derrida and Foucault are the two primary villains for many opponents of so-called postmodernism — Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor adored by the right, has called them “the two architects of the postmodernist movement.”
But even the very idea that there was or is a “postmodernist movement” is questionable. In 1983, Foucault was asked in an interview with the scholarly journal Telos to elaborate on the postmodern aspects of his work. “What are we calling postmodernity?” he replied. “I’m not up to date.”
To its credit, the Vox piece avoids this conflation, instead looking for a documented point of origin. That origin is properly located in Jean-François Lyotard, author of the 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, based on a study commissioned by the Council of Universities of the Government of Quebec originally titled “The Problems of Knowledge in the Most Developed Industrial Societies.” It dealt with the way we interpret reality in the context of mass media, the reproduction of cultural commodities that starts with the printing press. But it may be overstating the case to say, as Illing does, that “Lyotard’s book is the first genuine work of postmodernism.” The term had already been used in cultural criticism, as in literary critic Ihab Hassan’s 1971 study The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, and architectural historian Charles Jencks’s 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. It necessarily denotes quite different things when pertaining to science, literature, and architecture — their unification requires an interpretive leap.
For Lyotard, it described an “incredulity towards metanarratives” — the latter word naming the story underlying every other story, like a religious doctrine or a philosophy of history. Illing is cautious about this, attributing Lyotard’s assessment not to an endorsement, but “a diagnosis of a world that was then already being fractured by mass media and technology.” But one of the problems with the claim that a “postmodern movement” exists is the question of what was there before the fracture.
There is not a great deal of agreement on the definition of modernity itself, either the time in which it occurred, or the forms of thought, culture, and political organization aligned with it. Again, these answers vary depending on whether we’re talking about literature, architecture, science, or whatever else. There is not even consensus over whether modernity is over yet. Another French philosopher, Bruno Latour, went as far as to write a book claiming We Have Never Been Modern.
The urge to group these thinkers together is not unreasonable, but it doesn’t hold up — and it leads to some unenlightening errors. It is in the attempt to chart a coherent arc that the cracks in the foundation start to show, as when Illing tries to account for the subsequent reputation of Lyotard’s ideas:
One of the reasons postmodernism has gotten such a bad rap is that other theorists — like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, all French philosophers writing before and after Lyotard — took the movement in a different, more relativistic direction. And the writing itself became more dense and indecipherable.
It is hard to argue that Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan took a “movement” initiated by Lyotard in a different direction (the above quoted text corrects an earlier published version, which claimed the other authors “followed” Lyotard). All three wrote their best-known work before The Postmodern Condition was published in 1979 — Lacan, in fact, died shortly after, in 1981. Besides, none of these thinkers dealt primarily with technology or contemporary media; Derrida concerned himself with the interpretation of the canon of Western philosophy, Foucault with historical research, and Lacan with various and sundry topics like sex and knots.
The thinker who dealt most closely with the subjects Illing cites as endemic to postmodernism was Jean Baudrillard, whose major role in the popular consciousness is as an inspiration for The Matrix. Illing sees Baudrillard’s contribution as a kind of media criticism, an exploration of “the consequences of living in a heavily mediated world” — a fair description of much of his work. This, Illing says, has consequences for public opinion.
Baudrillard popularized the world “simulacra” to describe the unreality this puts us in. Twitter, as Jonathan Chait recently suggested, is a kind of simulacrum. Spend enough time on it and your picture of reality becomes predictably warped. The content you consume is easily mistaken for the real world.
This is the very state of affairs that has led to Explainers. “We live in a world of too much information and too little context,” says Vox’s website. “Too much noise and too little insight. That's where Vox's explainers come in.” But Baudrillard’s critique ran deeper than that. The problem was not merely that representations of reality might be inaccurate — it was that a corresponding reality was not accessible. A simulacrum is not a distorted representation, but a representation for which no original exists. Simulacra and Simulation invokes Disneyland, with its reproduction of the archetypal American town. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation,” Baudrillard wrote. The “real” town is also pretending to be a town.
Illing doesn’t quite deal with these more complex questions, concluding that postmodernism is a decent idea taken too far. “Some of the postmoderns took this initial insight from Lyotard — that power often dictates what we take to be true — and extended it to mean that there is no truth as such,” he argues. But philosophy consists of literally millennia of debate on the nature of truth. As for the question of how to understand Donald Trump, we may well be aided by a study of how information is distributed and exchanged in contemporary society. But the phenomenon he represents is fairly simple, one that has existed for as long as philosophy has: a very stupid man has more power than he deserves, and he is going to abuse it until someone stops him.