Two works of postmodern critique

13 minute read


There is an article today on Washington Post addressing recent vilifying and obfuscatory attacks on “postmodernism” in US media and celebratariatosphere from Conservatives, neo-Conservatives, Centrists, and Liberals.

Postmodern theory may be the most loathed concept ever to have emerged from academia. Developed within literature and philosophy departments in the 1970s, it supposedly told us that facts were debatable, that individual perspectives mattered most, that shared meaning was an illusion and that universal truth was a myth. The right quickly identified these notions as a danger to the very foundations of society and spent decades flogging the university lefties who promoted them. In “Tenured Radicals,” Roger Kimball accused academic theorists of trying to redefine the traditional humanities as “a species of political grievance-mongering” for which virtue equals “whatever sexual, feminist, Marxist, racial, or ethnic agenda to which the particular critic has declared his allegiance.” Norman Podhoretz believed that postmodernism was an attack on moral order. More recently, Victor Davis Hanson faulted postmodernism for President Barack Obama’s handling of health care legislation, writing, “In the gospel of postmodern relativism, what did it matter if the president of the United States promised that Obamacare would not alter existing health-care plans when it was clear that it would?”

Later, centrists and liberals searching for a culprit behind the ascent of Donald Trump and the war on fact that surrounds him joined the conservative crusade. Michiko Kakutani, the cultural critic and author of “The Death of Truth,” blames the relativism that facilitated Trump’s rise on “academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism.” Lamenting the state of American politics under Trump, philosopher Daniel Dennett said in an interview last year, “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil.” And when Rudy Giuliani recently told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth,” Vox claimed that it wasn’t “the first time Trump’s legal team has played postmodernist and hinted that it might be too hard to discern the truth because it’s all relative anyway.” (Aaron Hanlon, Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him. )

These obfuscations are not much worth our time here, and suffices to say three things: first, that concpiracy theories do not come from fringes of society only, but also, though perhaps in more fanciful language, from the cynic ruling class as well as bourgeois academics and academic careerists. The common diagnosis of it, as Fredric Jameson points out quite accurately, is poor cognitive mapping in the complex postmodern age. Second, that postmodernism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood terms among the people foreign to philosophical traditions of the 20th century, in particular the French philosophical movements of late half of the 20th century. It is NOT a system of beliefs, it did not refer to a fixed set of self-identified-as-postmodern thinkers, and certainly there were not secret meetings between them to conspire and plan for future ascendency of Trump to power in 2016. It is very hard to describe, let alone define postmodernism. However, one of the common concerns in postmodern thinkers was conditions of human life in late capitalist societies. This includes critique of culture, economy, media, power, etc. Many of the philosophers who are commonly called postmodern are also called other things; a great example is Foucault who has also been called a structuralist. If one attempts at tracing postmodernism based on the ideas and not just as a name of an era, then Nietzche and Heidegger should be counted as postmodern thinkers. Third, postmodernism is not just a philosophical tradition, it is more so a vast literary and art movement. Some the postmodernists of literature in the 60s were committed to metafiction, the literary technique of self-consciousness that puts the lie to realism, making the audience constantly aware that what they are reading is an artificial construct, an exact opposite of propoganda.

Today I want to introduce two postmodernist (or rather critique of postmodernism) works, one philosophical and the other literary, which I have recenlty came across and found them interesting. The first one is Society of the Spectacle (1967) by French philosopher and Marxist critical theorist Guy Debord. The book is a relentless analysis of the conditions of life that the Capitalism and market societies at the last stage of her development along with her own totalized system of values had established all over the Globe. Guy Debord was an influencial member of situationists movement who defined the spectacle as an assemblage of social relations transmitted via the imagery of class power, and as a period of capitalist development wherein “all that was once lived has moved into representation”.

The second is a short story, indeed a frame story with several substories nestling inside. “The Soul is Not a Smithy” by by David Foster Wallace complements the spectacular element of postmodern life with its flip side of boredom of beauracratic life. It is a work of literary art than philosophy, so I let the work speak for itself:

For my own part, I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven. I knew, even then, that the dreams involved my father’s life and job and the way he seemed when he returned home from work at the end of the day. His arrival was nearly always between 5:42 and 5:45, and it was usually I who was the first to see him come through the front door. What occurred was almost choreographic in its routine. He came in already turning in order to press the door closed behind him. He removed his hat and topcoat and hung the coat in the foyer closet; he clawed his necktie loose with two fingers, took the green rubber band off of the Dispatch, entered the living room, greeted my brother, and sat down with the newspaper to wait for my mother to bring him a highball. The nightmares themselves always opened with a wide angle view of a number of men at desks in rows in a large, brightly lit room or hall. The desks were arranged in precise rows and columns like the desks of an R. B. Hayes classroom, but these were all more like the large, grey steel desks that the teachers had at the front of the room, and there were many, many more of them, perhaps 100 or more, each occupied by a man in suit and tie. If there were windows I do not remember noticing them. Some of the men were older than others, but they were all obviously adults — people who drove, and applied for insurance coverage, and had highballs while they read the paper before dinner. The nightmare’s room was at least the size of a soccer or flag football field; it was utterly silent and had a large clock on each wall. It was also very bright. In the foyer, turning from the front door while his left hand rose to remove his hat, my father’s eyes appeared lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his at-home persona. He was a kind, decent, ordinary looking man. His voice was deeply pitched but not resonant. Softspoken, he had a sense of humor that kept his natural reserve from seeming remote or aloof. Even when my brother and I were small, we were aware that he spent more time with us and took the trouble to show us that we were important to him a good deal more than most fathers of that era did (it was many years before I had any real idea of how our mother felt about him). The foyer was directly off of the living room, where the piano was, and at that time, I often read or played with my trucks outside of kicking range beneath the piano while my brother practiced his Hanons, and I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air. I remember the foyer as dim and cold and smelling of the coat closet, the bulk of which was filled with my mother’s different coats and matching gloves. The front door was heavy and difficult to open and close, as if the foyer were pressurized. It had a small, diamond-shaped window in the center, which we moved before I was ever big enough to see out of. He had to put his side into the door somewhat in order to make it close all the way, and I would not see his face until he turned to remove his hat and coat, but I can recall that the angle of his shoulders as he leaned into the door had the same quality as his eyes. I could not convey this quality now and most assuredly couldn’t have then, but I know that it helped inform the nightmares. His face was not at all like this on weekends off. It is in hindsight, now, that I believe the dreams to have been about adult life. At the time, I knew only their terror — much of the difficulty they complained of in getting me to lie down and go to sleep at night was due to these dreams. Nor could it always have been dusk at 5:42, though that is what I recall its being, and the inrush of outside air he brought with him as cold, and scented with burnt leaves and the sad way the street smelled at twilight, when all of the houses became the same color and all of their porch lights came on like bulwarks against something unnamable. His eyes when he turned from the door didn’t scare me, but the feeling was somehow related to being scared. Often I still had a truck in my hand. His hat went on the hatrack, his coat shouldered out of, then the coat was folded over his left arm, the closet opened with his right, the coat transferred to right hand while the third wooden coathanger from the left is again removed with the left hand. There was something about this routine that cast shadows deep down in parts of me I could not access on my own. I knew something of boredom by then, of course — at Hayes, and Riverside, or on Sunday afternoons when there was nothing to do — the fidgety type of childhood boredom that is more like worry than despair. But I do not believe I consciously connected the way my father looked at night with the far different and deeper, soul-level boredom of his job, which I knew was actuarial because in 2nd grade everyone in Mrs. Claymore’s homeroom had had to give a short presentation on what our father’s profession was. I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk, and I knew that it had numbers in it because of the documents that were visible in his briefcase when I got to pop its latches and open it for him, and my brother and I had had the building that housed the insurance company’s HQ and my father’s tiny window in its face pointed out to us by our mother from the car, but the actual specifics of his job were always vague. And remained so for many years. Looking back, I suspect that there was something of a cover-your-eyes and stop-your-ears quality to my lack of curiosity about just what my father had to do all day. I can remember certain exciting narrative tableaux based around the competitive, almost primitive connotations of the word breadwinner, which had been Mrs. Claymore’s blanket term for our fathers’ occupations. But I do not believe I knew or could even imagine, as a child, that for almost 30 years of 51 weeks a year my father sat all day at a metal desk in a silent, fluorescent lit room, reading forms and making calculations and filling out further forms on the results of those calculations, breaking only occasionally to answer his telephone or to meet with other insurance men in other bright, quiet rooms. With only a small and sunless north window that looked out on other small office windows in other tall grey buildings. The nightmares were vivid and powerful, but they were not the kind from which you wake up crying out and then have to try to explain to your mother when she comes what the dream was about so that she could reassure you that there was nothing like what you just dreamed in the real world. (The Soul is Not a Smithy, David Foster Wallace)

Listen to Wallace himself reading this passage.