Post-Modernism’s cul de sac.

The original title of this post “Should Post Modernism Die?”  created misunderstanding and has now been changed to better reflect the point I was trying to make.

Critiques of “Post Modernism” are not limited to the right or popular culture. For example, see Chomsky’s Critique of Focault or the  response of multiple Pragmatists such as Hilary Putnam and Susan Haack to Richard Rorty’s efforts to reinterpret Dewey in light of Derrida’s writings. I will add as well, that in my own area, Institutional and Evolutionary Economics as well as among Post Keynesians, the introduction of varieties of post-modernism and literary interpretations of economics is not necessarily novel, but is to say the least, a touchy subject with many, including myself. Indeed, the premise among most, though certainly not all, economists who would label themselves “heterodox” is that the methods and practices of mainstream economics often exemplify bad science and a lack of realism. Thus the goal of much, though again not necessarily all, heterodox economics is to attempt to put economics on a better scientific foundation.

And as I noted below in my original post, we might do better to entirely abandon the term “post-modernism” precisely because it does encompass a diverse range of people and movements who do not in fact agree with each other on specifics. However, like a lot of vague and overworked terms, it is difficult to find a better one so the term will no doubt continue to be used.

That said, I still find the original article which I was responding to (see link below) to be useful and to raise a valid point. And here again, to be fair, I think that a reading of the article will show that the author made an honest effort to address the range and diversity of post-modernism and also to point out that the use of various theorists to justify identity politics is not necessarily consistent with the goals of those theorists. In addition, this author made an effort to address the important writings of various theorists directly.

For those of use who come out of the Analytic and Pragmatist traditions the arguments of those labeled “post-modernists” lead to a cul de sac from which there is no exit. As I have explained in conversation to people, I do not think that each and every point made by each and every person who has laid claim to the post-modern mantle is necessarily invalid. And I would hasten to add that the word “modernism” is  equally vague,  at least some aspects of post-modernism are latent in what is often referred to as high modernism or emerged as arguments when the more ambitious goals of some modernists could not be attained. But just because we cannot have everything, does not mean we can have nothing, or that our choices are inherently arbitrary.

I’m planning on my next installment on Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace sometime this weekend. In the interim, I came across this intriguing article No, Postmodernism is Not Dead  in a journal I had not seen before named Aereo. To be frank, I have never had the patience to systematically wade through “Post-Modern” Theory. I put “Post-Modern” into scare quotes, because I have always thought the term was at best vague and ambiguous enough that nearly anything or anything could be deemed “Post-Modern”, including a lot of people or movements you might otherwise think of as “Modernist” (to use another incredibly vague term). This has notably given me a bit of a handicap since I have a general rule that before I start criticizing, I want to be sure that I fully understand so that my criticism is not directed against a straw person.

Consequently, aside from the occasional foray, I have always been a bit on the economistic side about reading Post Modernist writers: the marginal costs always seemed to  very quickly eclipse the marginal benefits. Similarly, when I weighed the opportunity costs of devoting time to trying to read Post Modernist writers against more reading of Economic History and Political Economy, it has never seemed worth it. And as I have watched “the left”, which I have always considered myself part of, get further and further bogged down in the morass of identity politics and “intersectionalism”, I’ve scratched my head over how one goes from an epistemology of relativism that borders on skepticism, to being so certain and dogmatic about politics. I’ve had my suspicions.

This author provides an overview of how this happens. It appears at least that she has devoted significant time to actually trying to understand what various Post Modernist writers do and do not say. I’ll leave it to others to enlighten me if they believe she is presenting a straw person.

It does nevertheless explain to me I find the tone and rhetoric of the Social Justice Warriors to at best off putting, even though I strongly support human rights for everyone.  I think this author hits the nail on the heard: those like me, who are in some meaningful sense, significantly influenced by Liberal theories of human rights, see equality and justice for all people as inclusive. I support legal recognition of gay marriage for example, due to my views on personal freedom and social equality. This is very different however than picking a side in a binary and making an arbitrary choice for one or more marginalized groups.

I’m interested in hearing the other side however.

3 thoughts on “Post-Modernism’s cul de sac.

  1. I think it’s interesting that critics of “postmodernism” are sometimes talking about postmodernity as an era, sometimes “postmodernism” as an artistic literary or architectural style, and sometimes as a set of core “postmodern” ideas in philosophy, some of which would be far better termed “post-structuralism.” I see some slippages in the article you linked to, in terms of a lack of clear boundaries.

    This is common when people take up the topic, but it’s a problem. What people are usually criticizing when they criticize postmodern thinking is Lyotard’s age-old characterization of the distrust of metanarratives (which is at least similar enough to neoMarxist and post-structuralist statements about distrust of “totalizing discourses” that there’s some linkage there–although not room for a pure conflation). Usually, people go for Lyotard because they haven’t read a lot of post-structuralism or they refuse to jettison either Habermasian dialectics or Judeo-Christian religious belief or both. It’s fine if they refuse to, but it ends the conversation pretty quickly.

    I also see a failure to address with nuance what people call the “relativism” of postmodernism for what it really is: the assiduous contextualization of knowledge and subjectivity/identity, and the realization that power relations are formative in the process of the dissemination of knowledge and the positioning of identities. Is that really relativism? “Black man” meant something different in antebellum Georgia and during the 1970’s Black Power movement and in 2018 “Black Lives Matter” political rhetoric. That’s not relativism–it’s reality. Social meanings, and bodies of knowledge, change, because power relations in society change and vice versa.

    I also see, yet again, the misunderstanding of the radical nature of Foucault’s rethinking of knowledge and power:

    “Foucault made a very similar argument historically and asserted that it was meaningless to speak of, or against knowledge, reason and truth and that there was only one episteme (way of obtaining knowledge) in any society and it decided what could be known. He called this “power-knowledge” and argued that it worked through discourses which situated people within dominant or subordinated roles in society.”

    This is a gross mis-statment, the sort that causes a halting stammer: “where do I even begin?” Foucault’s power/knowledge is not an episteme. It is a set of channels, popular and institutional, through which power flows and produces discourse and knowledge systems that create institutions, practices, subject positions. It’s dynamic, contextual, and beholden to his theory of power (which is not power as usual, top-down, repressive, based in regimes). Power in Foucault is productive, dispersed throughout society as a differential set of relationships. It is not unproblematically bad. It can be good, albeit potentially “dangerous”; it is certainly productive. According to Foucault and Deleuze, it creates “reality.”

    Part of the problem with the usual characterization of postmodernism by antagonists is that most people use Marx as the starting point for understanding post-structuralism. But, Nietzsche and Saussure work better. If we begin at some of the basic precepts of these two thinkers, much of poststructuralism follows logically, and it opens up new vistas for thinking about things like historical emergences, sociolinguistic meanings, and contemporary politics.

    One thing it doesn’t do very well, though, is operate as a sort of platform for identity politics.

    There is no basis for seeing identity politics as “postmodern,” not even queer theory. Identity politics, by its very nature assumes a ground of potential justice based on the consistency or essential nature of selfhood, something that post-structuralists regard with suspicion at best. Foucault, for instance, simply doesn’t time for the subject as a basis for any useful theorizing or action. In order to have “identity politics,” one must have identity. Post-structuralists often don’t even use that word, preferring the more social-construction-friendly term “subject position.” But, somehow, the people who are first to tell you that you have no essential self to defend also end up as the first people criticized for movements who defend essential selves, or partly constructed ones. Either way, that’s not postmodern, and it’s not on us. The article is right about one thing–we are the ones who critique and dissect. We are not the ones who are going to tell you which movement to join or how to make the world a better place for freedom and justice. We are not the SJWs.

    Postmodernists are alive, well, reading social and literary theory, and happily writing recommendations for graduate students to get into programs to study more postmodernism. Only people unsympathetic to our thinking think we’re in trouble.



    1. Thank you for taking the time to provide a response from a post-structuralist perspective. A few points. Of course, when I post, I don’t necessarily endorse everything in a link though I did think that this author had taken some time actually read the sources and come to grips with the sources. I thought a strength of this author, even if there were some slippages, was that she did take the time to address the multiple movements, people, ideas, projects, etc. that are often lumped under the label “post-modernism”. That has often been my own frustration is that once you use the term “modernism” or “post-modernism” you could be referring to a near infinite range of topics or authors. That noted, I think that there is a general usage in that modernism is often looked at as providing some kind of basis or foundation to make a claim whereas post-modernism is usually associated with a vague assertion that all foundations are suspect. Still, I think it helps if one is specific about who and what exactly the beef is with. As to what Focault meant or did not mean, I’d be inclined to accept your expertise and your assertion that misunderstandings of Focault are widespread. Fair enough. I think you could add that Focault is also misused or put to causes that Focault himself would probably not have endorsed. I quite agree incidentally that as far as I can discern, it is not fair to blame Marx for post-structuralism or post-modernism and I’m quite happy to let him off the hook. In fact, one of my own objections to what I hear from people who self identify as post-modernist or post-structuralist is that they have entirely lost sight of what was useful and good in Marx: a materialist and scientific approach to understanding society. Who is to “blame” or “credit” with the current trend in left wing politics, especially on college campuses towards identity politics and intersectionalism is an interesting issue, but again, it is, I agree, not Marx. That said, can one really say that the theorists who are cited such as Judith Butler and who have become widely influential are not in some sense drawing on post-modern or post-structuralist sources?


  2. I believe leftism has really lost its roots with my generation. I usually align myself with Libertarians due to their openness and close alignment with classical Liberalism. I know this is no perfect match but its the best i can hope to get with Identity politics being so common among the left and legislating morality so common among the right, both of these being things i find troublesome in my opinion.


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