Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

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