Every era wants something to blame. A people, a trend, a concept: an ominous and mysterious monolith for common sentiment to stone. This thing from another planet is responsible for all our problems; its overcoming means the removal of all responsibility. If only this thing was gone, neutralized, destroyed. It’s typically just a word, as empty as the air which carries it.
While the origin of postmodernism disdain is uncertain, it’s clearer who’s leading the cavalry’s charge. Jordan Peterson for one. A man who started his career tackling evil through a wonderful book called Maps of Meaning and will probably end it as a YouTube pundit berating, what he sees as, the trend hurling Western civilization towards the abyss.
What’s not clear is exactly what is conceived as “postmodernism.” The definition is vague. And one that Peterson and cohorts rarely take the time to elucidate, if at all. There are names of course: Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, Lacan; a majority of French intellectuals and the offbeat American playing translator for a curious audience.
These are figures easily criticized but rarely read. Though they are mere theorists. Any real definition or understanding of “postmodernism” would encompass its totality, if that’s possible. It begins with Duchamp’s urinal and ends with Peterson’s rants.
I’m no reader of the aforementioned list; this is not an article supporting 20th-century theory. No desire. No time. Too busy with earlier thinkers. Afterall, today’s houses aren’t made of one room. I have to admit I’m impressed so many people discuss these postmodernists. How they’ve absorbed history to arrive at late 20th century theory is a triumph of time management; these are readers indistinguishable from their Twitter accounts.
We still need a definition. What is understanding but ensuring definitions have flexible pillars to thwart off any earthquake? “Postmodernism.” On its own legs it’s an interesting word. It suggests something beyond the present, the modern; something out there, an alternative in the future inevitably arriving. Something above and beyond, a transcendental understanding about earthly matter.
Anything operating under postmodernism assumes a grandiose pretentiousness. It seems ripe to be a criticism of you, the reader, for not seeing the light from tomorrow’s sun singing in the cracks of the door. If only you understood. Post: Beyond: Superior: Better. Fine enough.
Not that whatever postmodernism is adheres to anything just described. Maybe it’s just what comes after “modern.” Is that the poetry collecting the wake of Frost, H.D., Stevens? I’m not sure. Whatever is underneath this nefarious somethingness that captivates audiences is the throbbing snot that hangs off even the best of minds.
Another sordid state of affairs. What Peterson, and those like him, have done is to take a sweeping concept—a warehouse of papers in which only a few names are discerned and understood—and demonized it. Crucified it. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” Sure Peterson likes to reiterate he’s read a little Foucault, but Peterson’s criticism isn’t directed at Foucault, but at some private club Foucault holds a membership card for.
Of course, discussing ideas is challenging. A challenge that’s not sexy or boisterous enough to reap $70,000 a month in Patreon donations, plus whatever direct donations result. Unfortunately. Because when ideas are set aside for vagaries what you’re left with is emotional belittlement. Stirring the pot with the anger of directionless youth. People want to discard a pariah and you’re giving it to them. Just another part of the routine isn’t it?
I can hear Thomas Sowell, in a mix of sighing and laughter, repeating the hubris of intellectuals who step out of their field. Never fails. A shame too. (I want to repeat here that Maps of Meaning is a wonderful book.)
What I’ve written here isn’t really about the critique of postmodernism. It’s a critique of critiquing placeholder concepts like postmodernism. Things without solid reference turn into another witch hunt. What a waste of time to attack emptiness, to crash into a windmill while we pick up the debris. If anyone wants to attack postmodernism, then attack the individuals associated with it: debate ideas, not concepts.
What begins as farce ends as tragedy, and then cycles back to farce. Today’s popular attacks on postmodernism—the concept—are a sad comedy. Another dialogue dismissed with arrogance. A monster summoned from the dust to be exterminated to protect Bethlehem.
There is a principle that ought to be internalized as a child. That is, no idea is worthless. Even if it’s wrong. Even if it’s not in accordance with intuition. All ideas—including those wearing sweatshirts from postmodernist college—inspire thinking. To agree or change your mind, to evolve, to inspire clarity.
Any idea is a prompt for discussion—with yourself.
Unfortunately, those who continue to attack “postmodernism” will stand at the sea, slashing with their sword, believing they’ve won a battle each time the tide retreats, and that the end is nigh when the salt returns to nip at their ankles.