Don’t Blame Postmodernism for the Post-Truth Society

Don’t Blame Postmodernism for the Post-Truth Society September 20, 2018

Those Frenchies tried to warn us that the Truth isn’t what we think it is. But did we listen?

As the story of recent history goes, Reality and Truth were doing just fine until the 60s, when postmodernists and feminists messed it all up. Then everybody started to argue about what Truth is, Trump got elected, and now Truth doesn’t matter anymore. The moral is that if we had just kept believing what we know to be Truth in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Aren’t fairy tales adorable?

The fine people at Quartz recently published an article called “Everyone hates postmodernism—but that doesn’t make it wrong,” in which Ephrat Livni explains how we’ve rewritten the history of thought in the last century to make it sound like those darn postmodernists broke Truth and held the door open for Trump to charge in and infest the White House and world politics. It’s much harder to come to terms with the fact that the postmodernists only described the circumstances that were leading to this sorry state of affairs, and it’s our fault for not listening. We didn’t want to admit that we needed to reassess our ideas about progress, knowledge, and truth. Many of us still don’t.

A More Inclusive Set of Realities

The once stable consensus of the Enlightenment project, where white guys told everyone else what was what, finally broke down in the 60s. If you don’t think it was a good thing for the women, minorities, and former subjects of European colonialism to finally assert their perspectives, maybe your privilege is showing:

But postmodernists didn’t create the new fractured reality; they merely described it. The French academics of the 1970s, particularly Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, saw the flaws in modernist thought—that old-timey Enlightenment-era notion that we all shared values, approved the same truths, and agreed on the facts. Instead, they acknowledged that reality is complicated. They recognized the changes happening in the late 20th century century—the erosion of authority, the ascendance of individual perspective—and developed the vocabulary to describe it.

This relativist view is helpful, though we may hate it. It’s as close to a description of reality as we can muster in a world where the line between real and fake is often blurred, and where we feel things to be true rather than knowing or thinking so. We may not know what’s true, but because of postmodernism, we have the means to speak accurately when accuracy is hard to locate.

The Postmodern President is No Postmodernist

It’s easy, I guess, for people who have never read Foucault and Derrida to believe that they were storming the reality castle to make way for Donald Trump and the post-truth society. However, there’s a difference between a critique of knowledge, truth and power on the one hand, and a mindset that says that you should just think whatever you want on the other. It’s not like Trump is dedicated to a model of social interaction that’s predicated on asymmetrical power relations, he’s just a narcissistic, predatory jerk.

It’s true that the postmodernists were uncompromising and sort of abstruse. But if our civilization meant as much to us as we say it does, we would have taken the time to understand what they were saying. Instead we kept our fingers in our ears until the new millennium came around and the leading figures of the movement died out, and then we figured public discourse could just go back to normal. But guess what? The black community in the USA is still furious about its continued marginalization and the cynical indifference of the white community. Women are as resentful as ever about being considered second-class citizens whose experience and autonomy mean nothing to men. And our former fiefdoms in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are still in turmoil after centuries of being exploited by Western governments, churches, and corporations.

You think smarty-pants French theorists were responsible for these debacles? Or were they just describing the catastrophic effects of late capitalism, along with the pitfalls of imposing our order and reality on everyone else? If white male America didn’t want these realities impinging on what it considered reality, it only has its own indifference to blame for the persistence of these problems.

Virtual Reality Becomes Reality, and Vice Versa

Quartz points out that our shared reality has been shattered and reimagined not by brainy French screeds, but by sophisticated, corporate pop culture creations like reality TV, Hollywood’s CGI spectaculars, video games and virtual reality:

The 1981 essay by Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation,” posited that imitations of reality—models, maps, symbols—were becoming more real than the things they depicted. Because we’re so entranced by imitations and idealizations of reality, like Disneyland for example, symbols start taking over. The exaggerations of the amusement park becomes our standard and we identify with this fantasy world more than with workaday life. Baudrillard argued that symbols had become more real to us than reality—hyperreal—such that Disneyland was ultimately more American than the actual lives of Americans. But the simulation also conceals the fact that there is no shared reality; actually, there isn’t a single thing that can be called “this American life.” Instead, there are countless different kinds of existences lived in the US, which are symbolized by an idealization, an amusement park, that doesn’t represent what it means to live in the nation.

Each To His Own Delusion

It was just too complicated to deal with reality as a complex of competing narratives, so we retreated into the shared delusion of reality TV and Hollywood comic-book movies. That’s not Foucault’s fault, is it? We were hoping that science would just magically point us toward Reality and Truth, and ignored the dissenting voices that cautioned us that science was a human endeavor as riddled with human bias as any other.

So now we’re living in a civilization where, thanks to technology, people can live and interact in whatever reality they consider convenient. The postmodernists tried to tell us that the language games of public discourse are the only meaningful approaches to truth left to us; Richard Rorty went to his grave asserting that open and neutral mediums were the most promising contexts for mutual engagement. Nothing that pragmatic interests us, since we’re enamored of our black-and-white thinking. We communicate with people we know will agree with us, and seek out venues where we know we’ll only ever have to interact with people we disagree with in the context of grandstanding slapfights where empathy doesn’t matter and mutual agreement isn’t necessary.

Instead of blaming postmodernists for the messiness of our time, we should be trying to find a new kind of language—one that allows us to speak across divides, rather than rejecting opposing perspectives as inherently false. We have to learn to acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of views and from this craft some kind of working truth. That may too be an illusion, but it will be more functional than living in denial. Otherwise, all that we’re left with is this impossible mess, and our perpetual rejection of life’s many inconvenient complexities.

Are we ever going to admit that ignoring the postmodernists got us into this mess? Resenting the idea that our approach to truth isn’t the only one has really paid off, hasn’t it?

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  • TinnyWhistler

    When my sister was around 4 or 5, she started calling things she didn’t like “new agey” or “post modern” because she’d heard those words used to describe anything mom didn’t like.

  • Steve Smith

    It amazes me how people can ignore what is totally obvious. As bad as Trump is, the Democrats could not provide a better alternative and that is why he got elected.

    Postmodernism is largely incomprehensible. So was the 2016 presidential election. I do see a connection there.

  • Raging Bee

    I wouldn’t give postmodernism a lot of blame for recent events…but I’m not inclined to give it a lot of credit either. It described certain trends, in such a way as to look like a handy excuse for continuing those trends.

  • epicurus

    UNC history prof Molly Worthen has an article about Evangelicals and post truth that I found interesting:

  • Anne Fenwick

    Those Frenchies tried to warn us that the Truth isn’t what we think it is. But did we listen?

    Yeah, you took it and ran with it. I don’t mean you personally. I mean that the last wave of postmodernist development was very predominantly American. I think you said so much in this post that it’s impossible to respond to in a comment. I honestly don’t agree with much of it, but I can’t produce any response that’s less than a wall of text long, so I’ll just address the basic question:

    Did postmodernism produce Donald Trump?

    I don’t know, but I honestly believe we’d be better of without either of them. I don’t agree that postmodernism has anything to do with the current multiplicity of voices. But I think it amounts to doing with whichever field you happen to be in what Donald Trump is doing with the presidency of the United States.

  • abb3w

    Depends somewhat on the basis for defining “better”; cue Hume.

  • abb3w

    Meh. My impressions is that the postmodernists had more point when they were talking about values than about knowledge claims.

  • Some people never outgrow that.

  • HematitePersuasion

    I do feel that Trump’s behavior does fit a postmodernist deconstruction of shared reality, but it would indeed do that regardless of the descriptions and critiques of postmodernism to give us a framework to understand what he is doing and the effect.

  • Did postmodernism produce Donald Trump?

    I don’t know, but I honestly believe we’d be better of without either of them. I don’t agree that postmodernism has anything to do with the current multiplicity of voices. But I think it amounts to doing with whichever field you happen to be in what Donald Trump is doing with the presidency of the United States.

    This might have seemed like a devastating bon mot to you, but I’m afraid it doesn’t make much sense. Care to elucidate?

    Postmodernism involves some very general ideas: that truth is perspectival, that things we think are eternal truths are really in flux, and that power operates in many covert ways, such as through language. I don’t see how any of these ideas is particularly objectionable.

  • In particular they were good at revealing value claims that were being disguised as knowledge claims by the dominant episteme.

  • the Democrats could not provide a better alternative and that is why he got elected.

    That doesn’t track, since by simple preference vote Clinton won handily. It is only because of the idiosyncratic and distortionary effect of the Electoral College that Trump prevailed despite being the popularly adjudged worse alternative.

  • But I think it amounts to doing with whichever field you happen to be in what Donald Trump is doing with the presidency of the United States.

    Ignoring all the norms, breaking all the rules, punching your partner in the face, pooping on the carpet and dancing naked into the night?

    I’ve met a few postmodernists, and none of them did that to their professions.

  • Steve Smith

    Umm…. you can’t win the popular vote handily, like Obama and Reagan did, and loose the Electoral College. Clinton won the popular vote by only 2% which statistically is more like a tie than a handy victory.


  • Clinton won the popular vote by only 2% which…

    …is a larger percentage margin than the winner got in election years 1824, 1844, 1876, 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000. And, of course, it is also true for 2016, where the winner won by a whopping -2.1%.

    And you are just making up statistical notions.

    And it’s spelled “lose”.

  • abb3w

    To a point, yes.

    However, the school seems to have tended to the position that all knowledge claims are entirely value claims, to the point of absurdity.

  • Yep.

    In the end, the absurdity can only ever be defended by a shock-and-awe strategy, which only works for so long and only goes so far. At some point, the position is a joke. The problem is, the philosopher is jealous of the moment when it is permitted for a sane person to laugh.

  • Anne Fenwick

    It’s a bit hard for postmodernists to complain about rhetoric, no? But anyway, like I said, the reason there wasn’t more it to avoid posting a book length critique.

    Postmodernism involves some very general ideas…

    The trouble with the ideas you listed next is that they’re too general. Not only are they unobjectionable, they’re current just about anywhere in time and space where you can look at ideas. And that’s the thing about postmodernism: the soft version sets up a straw man and wastes a lot of everyone’s time tilting at it. I mean, just what exactly did you think these things ‘we think (or thought) are eternal truths’ actually consist of? I’m coming up with Plato’s theory of ideal forms, God’s supposed omniscience and a handful of ‘laws of physics’. Otherwise, I don’t even know what the phrase refers to.

    It sounds like you lean towards the softer ‘viewpoint relativist’ end of the spectrum, and that in particular you think viewpoint relativism is a) new and b) has made possible the representation of previously marginalized voices. Obviously, I don’t know for sure if you hold either of those views, but anyway I don’t agree with either them. And while I totally get theory, I’m also a very ‘rubber hits road’ type of person.
    I’m pretty sure previously marginalized voices (like mine for instance) are with us today through a combination of technological and political developments which have nothing to do with post modernism. I literally wouldn’t be talking now, in a more or less public sphere, about a socio-political/academic topic without, among other things a) contraception b) a determinedly socialistic system of public education and c) a means of communication that allows me to snatch minutes here and there in my own home, because still! I wouldn’t have the thoughts and ideas I do if it weren’t for the last two of those. And I’m not actually aware that post modernism has contributed much here.

    What we do with our voices now we’ve got them is in all respects identical to what ‘dead rich(-ish) white men’ did with theirs: we deploy or undermine power through language and by other means if possible, we assert contesting viewpoints and sometimes contesting ideas about the truth, we don’t only expect change in the general perception of the ‘truth’, we seek it. Just as they did. The only reason some people don’t perceive these similarities, I suspect, is that they haven’t paid an awful lot of attention to what the dudes were saying and how they were saying it. Or we think that because we’re talking about different things to whatever happened to interest them, or the same things from new angles there really is something fundamentally different about our voices, as opposed to them being more variety of the same basic thing.

    The extreme version of postmodernism also exists and really does deny the possibility or relevance of identifying any proposition as untrue. I’m talking about the kinds of people who won’t be pinned down on whether, say, Holocaust denial is an attack on the truth, because from their perspective the only thing that’s relevant about the Holocaust is how it’s deployed in contemporary discourse. There’s a spectrum between the two, and they tend to use similar language, which makes it pretty easy for any given proponent of postmodernism to claim that their critics are attacking a straw man.

    Although that barely covers the surface of the topic, I should perhaps mention that I also don’t agree with the mainly francophone linguistic theories from which post modernism ultimately sprang (Saussure, Barthes, Lacan, etc..) for reasons which would require another, different wall of text.