Post-modernism is just art criticism, but conservative intellectuals are constantly attacking it these days. And conservatives are saying remarkably post-modernist things from Giuliani’s “Truth isn’t truth” to Donald Trump’s constant stream of post-factual Tweets, including those on global warming and coal.
Actual post-modernist thought about things that aren’t art is mostly dominant in conservative thinking. Liberals are mostly perplexed by the attacks if they think about them at all. What the heck is going on?
Are conservatives tearing their hair out about post-modernism? Yes.
On the right side of the political spectrum (by most standards), we have statements like these:
- postmodernism, in many ways — especially as it’s played out politically — is the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits — Jordan Peterson
- Obama is the first postmodern president — Ben Shapiro
- These folks form the current Far Left, including those who would be described as communists, socialists, anarchists, Antifa, as well as social justice warriors (SJWs). These are all very different groups, but they all share a postmodernist ethos. — Michael Aaron
- Between the Carybde of pseudo-empiricism and the Scylla of postmodernism — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities. It’s come to dominate all of the humanities — which are dead as far as I can tell — and a huge proportion of the social sciences. — Jordan Peterson
- everything to the postmodernists is about power — Jordan Peterson
- Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself — Helen Pluckrose
- Is postmodernism inherently authoritarian? — Zane Beal
Yes, these are supposedly serious public intellectuals in the age of global warming, trade wars, nuclear re-armament, a global lack of Marxism in any major country, saying in print remarkably absurd, histrionic and hyperbolic things about an approach to criticizing art.
What the heck is post-modernism?
There are some critics of literature, art, and architecture who are using post-modernism in the field from which it initially emerged. They are actually talking about its basics as an aesthetic approach to understanding works and putting them in different contexts. It’s all very high-brow and mostly irrelevant, but post-modernist criticism in these realms has been around for decades.
In architecture, modernism was a huge thing and its tenets included having form follow function, exterior volumes matching interior volumes, lack of superficial decoration and honesty of materials and finishing. Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Richard Kahn, Thomas Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright are a subset of the architects who worked in this mode. It has turned into the International Style and has become a generic default for new buildings, at least in places I hang around. Post-modernism in this context was a reaction to modernism, with fun volumes of low functional merit, decoration, and the like arising from the sometimes grim excesses – concrete brutalism anyone? — of modernism. Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaus, Daniel Libeskind, and Michael Graves are good examples of post-modernist architects.
In literature, post-modernism led fairly directly from structuralism, which broke apart the relationship between the signified and the signifier. That concept seems trivial to anyone who has studied more than one language, where oeuf and egg are obviously not the same thing as the physical ovoid produced by a hen, but it has a useful intellectual purpose. In literary criticism, it led to critics such as Stanley Fish, whose textbook on criticism is entitled Is There a Text in This Class?, to which it answered a resounding “No.” As a literary form, post-modernism led to a lot of experimentation about what constituted a novel or a short story, and possibly led to some of the more interesting and persistent forms of entertainment and art we have today.
Most of what actually gets written about post-modernism comes from this group. Doesn’t seem that harmful, does it? Some academics criticizing art and literature from a specific point of view in dusty academic halls? It’s a bit hard to understand what all the fuss is about when you look at this.
What the heck is going on?
There are a few arguably lesser threads of post-modernist thought that start to become interesting to find out why all of these bright people on the right are frothing at the mouth.
Let’s talk about relativism. This is the philosophical doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute. Further, for matters of art, literature, culture and the like, no one actually has a privileged opinion which must be deferred to. There are three parts to this that frost conservative’s shorts.
The first is that moral relativism part. Conservative thinkers are dominated by social conservatives. Peterson is a self-identified Christian. Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew. Taleb is a Greek Orthodox. You might see where this is going. An attacking on post-modernism is in many cases an attack on moral relativism by religious people who have more absolute perspectives on right and wrong.
The second is the lack of authority. People with right-wing tendencies also tend to be authoritarians. They want respect. They want their opinions listened to and more importantly, taken as gospel. That post-modernist concept that there isn’t anyone with a privileged perspective makes them a bit crazy.
Lack of a recognized canon as part of a rejection of tradition. E.D. Hirsch is probably the go-to conservative here. His work around cultural literacy was a resounding cry for the traditional canon of great literature to be taught throughout schools. What does this great canon have in common? The vast majority of the authors are dead white men. Great black, Japanese, Indian, and female authors don’t make an appearance. He was big around the same time that conservatives were freaking out about ebonics. What does post-modernism say about the canon? That it should be inclusive of a lot of modern, non-white, and female authors, and that the historical greats aren’t necessarily better, they just came first. Oh, and that hip-hop is as of deserving of critical assessment as classical music.
But then there’s the flip side of the post-modernism and conservatism problem.
We get to a blip a couple of decades ago, the so-called Science Wars. On the one hand, we had post-modernist philosophers who extended post-modernist thought until it broke by trying to make it apply to non-subjective things such as the scientific method. They were saying that science itself was just someone’s unprivileged opinion, and not actually the basis of all of our useful understanding of the world and cosmos. On the other side, we had every empiricist in the world looking at them as if they’d grown three eyes. This mostly played out in dusty academia and academic journals. Occasionally it broke free into the broader realm of public discourse and a small subset of actual scientists told them how nuts they were with example after example after example.
Why is this obvious silliness important? Because one of the underpinnings of the overly ambitious post-modernists was their love of Thomas Kuhn, author of the rightly celebrated The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, and more than anyone else the person who made the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ important. The post-modernists liked what he had to say, and then pretended it meant something different and more than it did.
Similarly, the work of the philosopher of science Karl Popper is seen as an influence on post-modernism, even though he rejected post-modernism himself. His biggest contribution was the concept that in order for a scientific theory to be valid, it had to be falsifiable. He said it in a much easier way to understand of course: A theory is falsifiable, as we saw in section 23, if there exists at least one non-empty class of homotypic basic statements which are forbidden by it; that is, if the class of its potential falsifiers is not empty.
Okay, so we have Kuhn, Popper, post-modernists, and science. What does this have to do with conservatives? Well, one of the primary tribal points of conservatives right now is ‘skepticism’ of climate change. And guess what? Kuhn and Popper get brought up by a subset of ‘skeptics’ quite regularly. They and Paul Feyerabend are referenced in the pages of climate-change denial sites such as Watts Up With That regularly. While Kuhn and Popper don’t get referenced directly by Judith Curry on her eponymously skeptical site, she has a guest post about Popper and both he and Kuhn are referenced regularly in the comments. Curry does have an extended post about Paul Feyerabend, who she cites admiringly.
That’s right, global warming deniers have embraced post-modernist views on science. It’s all become truthy. This isn’t a surprise at all, given the rise of post-factual discourse on the right. Global warming is an obvious example, but anti-vaccination views have shot up on the right while staying steady or declining on the left. Similarly, Public Policy Polling has documented an astonishing set of perspectives by conservatives on how the economy was completely destroyed by Obama, which were completely counterfactual.
So this is my formulation of why conservative and liberals are talking past one another about post-modernism.
Liberals are talking about it from the perspective of a way of looking at art and architecture, if they talk about it at all. They consider relativism to be a completely obvious statement with religions being pretty equal to one another. They are completely unclear why there’s a fuss about this. And they miss the post-modernist underpinnings of the modern conservative war on science.
Conservatives on the one hand are reacting to post-modernism as an attack on their values and on the respect that they feel they and the things they like deserve, and on the other hand are internalizing its least useful line of thought. The lack of any coherent truth in political discourse is a much stronger element on the right at present. It’s swung back and forth a bit, but complete mendacity is a feature of the top ranks of the Republican party right now.
Others have pointed out that in fact it’s the conservatives that have been captured by post-modernism. This rings very true. Basically, every time conservatives yell something at liberals these days, it’s because they are guilty of it themselves. Why not post-modernism as well, or at least its worst attributes?
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