The Inhumane Consequences of Postmodernism
For whatever reason, Roger Kimball has written a number of meticulously researched articles in the “New Criterion” over the years which touch on postmodernism, and their combined effect is to create a disturbing (and, alas, probably accurate) impression of the movement. This essay is largely a compilation of points from those articles and an interpretation of what they show.
A classic postmodernist position is the refusal to try to be objective on the grounds that objectivity is unattainable. One problem with this embrace of bias is that, besides helping to bring beliefs into maximum accordance with truth, attempts at impartiality help to create a level playing field and to ensure equal rights and opportunities. One consequence of the abandonment of aspirations to impartiality is therefore jeopardy to equality of rights and opportunities. An illustration thereof is leading postmodernist Stanley Fish. As Roger Kimball shows in an article, Professor Fish opposes double-blind peer-review because he considers bias inevitable, but also, in his words,
because the fact that my name is attached to an article greatly increases its chances of getting accepted .... I have paid my dues and earned the benefit of the doubt I now enjoy and don’t see why others shouldn’t labor in the vineyards as I did.
Professor Fish also defends “professionalism”, which, in his usage of the word, means self-serving careerism without regard for providing value to people. In such positions, the logic of postmodernism seems to come full circle as the notions that morality is pure pretence and relationships in society are all about power are used to justify antisocial self-promotion. Needless to say, the argument quoted above is an attempt to defend resting on one’s laurels, to undermine meritocracy, and to keep newcomers in academia down. It should inspire doubt in the idea that postmodernism is a useful tool for combatting oppression and “privilege”. In this, it recalls the case of Julia Kristeva, another member of the postmodernist pantheon, who, according to an article in “Commentary”, “has long pronounced herself the enemy of all totalitarianisms”, yet praised Maoism and the Cultural Revolution and “dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation”.
Professor Fish is also deeply sceptical of individual freedom of choice, maintaining that, as summarised in the article,
all values, preferences, facts, desires, and principles are themselves products of some “interpretive community,”
an idea which, according to Mr. Kimball, would call into question any moral condemnation of Adolf Hitler. I can see no flaw in Mr. Kimball’s argument, and the example is aptly chosen in view of the consensus among historians that the Holocaust would not have happened without Hitler (see Pinker 2011: 209). Against this backdrop, it is a mite chilling to read the words of postmodernist Richard Rorty, who is quoted as denying “any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are [sic] preferable to the other”.
Mr. Kimball also inveighs against Professor Fredrick Jameson, who has praised the Chinese Cultural Revolution and called Maoism the “richest of all the great new ideologies of the 60s.” Granted, Professor Jameson blends a variety of left-wing ideas in his writings, and his support for Chinese communism most likely arises from his Marxism more than from any other one of them. Nevertheless, although the Professor directs some reproach towards postmodernism,
he dismisses the modernist critique of postmodernism as a return to bourgeois individualism and “quaint romantic values” like genius[.]
It reflects poorly on postmodernism that Professor Jameson, a supporter of the murderous Cultural Revolution, sees it as an ally in the struggle against “bourgeois individualism”.
Maoism was also endorsed by the most influential postmodernist of them all, Michel Foucault, along with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Foucault also threw rocks at police and seems to have had trouble drawing an ethical distinction between the USSR under Stalin and the USA under Roosevelt. He rejected “such ideas as responsibility, sensitivity, justice, and law”.
In the end, it should be a matter of common sense that postmodernism is a rotten idea. The danger of a project that takes on the role of rejecting (or transcending) modernism should be evident from modernity’s spectacular achievements. The Enlightenment and its legacy have produced unprecedented prosperity, knowledge, and dignity. Postmodernism seeks to undo that legacy. In “Understanding Postmodernism”, Dr. Steven Hicks traces a direct genealogical line from pre-modern to postmodern thought. This account is lent credence by Michel Foucault’s factually flawed endorsement of the treatment of the insane during the Middle Ages as opposed to that which they received in later epochs (see also Merquior 1987: 21-33).
As a further illustration of the unsavory potential of anti-modernism, we may take the case of Paul de Man, “the most celebrated and cerebral of literary deconstructionists”. As it turned out after his death, de Man had written in support of the Nazis from 1939 to 1943. Jacques Derrida and other postmodernists energetically defended him against criticism for this collaboration.
Writing for the White Nationalist website counter-currents.com, someone named Michael O’Meara praises the commentator Francis Parker Yockey, who, he asserts,
by the early 1950s, based on European aesthetic (i.e., Spenglerian) rather than scientific objective criteria and thus with a sort of postmodernism avant la lettre, […] had worked out a prescient understanding of what lay ahead[.]
Again, the link between pre- and postmodern ways of thinking is apparent, as is postmodernism’s destructive potential.
(Incidentally, I call the website “White Nationalist” because that seems to be its defining feature, but in my opinion, the anti-Semitism and flirting with Fascism, National Socialism, anti-modernism and dictatorship in general in Mr. O’Meara’s article are much worse than any White Nationalist component. These elements should be distinguished from one another: it is possible to be a White Nationalist without having any sympathies for Fascism or National Socialism or being an anti-Semite, as Jared Taylor’s website American Renaissance shows — although there is plenty of unsavory stuff on that website as well, and the idea of White Nationalism is itself questionable.)
There is also Julius Evola. This Italian writer sympathised with the Fascists, but promoted ideas far more radical and absurd than theirs. While Italian Fascism in general was not significantly racist (unlike the National Socialism that arose in Germany), Evola certainly was — and, incidentally, his brand of racism was probably the most unscientific there ever was. The Fascists, though they viewed him with contempt, used Evola to demonstrate their racist credentials to the Nazis. Evola does not seem to have been a postmodernist properly speaking, but he certainly was a dadaist, and dadaism was arguably a precursor to postmodernism. In any case, the two movements are very similar. Both express protest against the capitalism, middle-class ways of life and rationalism which define modernity. It appears likely that Evola would have been a postmodernist had he lived later in the twentieth century. Evola’s magnum opus is instructively titled “Revolt Against the Modern World”. Dadaism was, like postmodernism, a predominantly leftist movement, yet Evola’s example showcases how irrationalism is easily utilised for heinous ends on either side of the political spectrum.
Aside from fostering notions which can lead to cruelty, brutality and misery, it seems that postmodernism is dangerous in another way. It also erodes people’s means to resist tyranny, whether the latter be itself inspired by postmodernism or not. According to Roger Kimball, Richard Rorty
wants us to get rid of the idea that “the self or the world has an intrinsic nature” because it is “a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation[” and believes that] “socialization” (like language) “goes all the way down[”, that is, that socialisation conditions all of perception].
This passage is eerily reminiscent of the idea of “collective solipsism” in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, which mainitains that there is no objective truth besides what the community deems true, the community’s opinions in this scenario being determined by the Party. Irrationalism and a disregard for objective truth have historically been used by oppressive governments. A good example thereof is the paranoia, passion for conspiracy theories and indifference to intellectual rigour in discussions of politics which have been instilled in the Russian people by the despotism in its recent history — in particular, by Stalinism. For more on this, see the books “Putinism” by Walter Laqueur and “Mafia State” by Luke Harding.
To recapitulate: how will you defend yourself against tyranny if you can neither appeal to rationality to show that what is demanded of you is irrational nor appeal to your individual rights nor appeal to modernity as a positive example of what can be achieved in the absence of tyranny?
Merquior, José Guilherme. 1987 (second edition). Foucault. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin.