I’m posting a complete, slightly edited version of a 31-part Twitter thread I posted on 18 July 2019 so there’s a record of what I wrote in one place where people can read, comment on, and annotate it. I invite you to do all that below. I’ve edited it here slightly only in order to correct typos in the original, to expand abbreviations that were necessary just to make it fit in tweets, to add links for context, and to reduce somewhat the intensity of my ranty swearing (this is a family blog after all).
Everyone should take what follows recognizing its original genre: the late-night Twitter rant. It’s certainly not a great introduction to the complex ideas and bodies of work it references. It simplifies a lot of what I hope is my more nuanced thinking about these topics. Its rhetoric is a bit incendiary and could even feel insulting to you, the reader. I bet you are a better person than the imaginary audience of my original rant. Certainly the mini-argument I make at the end about why this flawed idea circulates in the USA is incomplete, and maybe even totally wrong. I do hope the rant can serve as an easy-to-digest argument against what I think is a common, but flawed idea about “postmodernism” and its role in shaping contemporary culture. And maybe we can add some depth to it through annotation and further conversation.
OK, I’ve reached my limit — I can’t take it anymore. Here comes a rant about how it seems like everyone in the USA is getting “postmodernism” wrong.
Context: I’m listening to Philosophy Talk’s episode “Is Postmodernism Really to Blame for Post-Truth?”.
First, on the term itself. “Postmodernism” or “PoMo” can mean so many different things — from specific movements in art, architecture, literature, etc (think Jenny Holzer, Michael Graves, or Thomas Pynchon) to an entire socio-cultural era (think “postmodernity”) — and yet PoMo has become the term for a punching bag filled with a variety of misunderstandings.
I can’t bring myself to continue this “PoMo” misnomering. It just confuses everything. So I’m going to call it “critical theory” for lack of a better term.
One might also identify what people are mistakenly calling “PoMo” as the post-structuralist tradition of investigating the relations between power & knowledge.
So if you are just going to wave your hands and wag your lips about “PoMo”: step off and shut up. You don’t know what you are freaking talking about.
<stern glance at Jordan Peterson and hiz boyz>
So what everyone really has their knickers in a twist about is critical theory, which they have clearly misunderstood in several fundamental ways (even the nice guys on Philosophy Talk).
The situation everyone is reacting to — what folks like Philosophy Talk are calling “Post-Truth Society” — is a real thing: facts and truth are being contested now in powerful ways, with profound effects.
But the connections to critical theory are painfully wrong.
I’ll stop to say that a careful listener to Philosophy Talk will see that I’m in strong agreement with most of the POVs presented in that episode — pretty much every philosopher they interviewed called BS on this whole ridiculous framework of blaming critical theory for post-truth.
Now let’s list the mistakes in this ridiculous argument that “PoMo” — or what I’m calling “critical theory” — caused post-truth.
First and foremost, the idea that critical theory promoted relativism or the idea that “all truths are equal” or that everyone’s “truth” is equally valid is totally and completely and utterly freaking wrong.
So if that’s your ante, you’re not playing.
What critical theory DOES do is investigate how truths are constructed, especially in relation to who has the power and — especially since capitalism arose — who has the money.
And if you think truths aren’t constructed by power and money: YOU AREN’T PAYING FREAKING ATTENTION!!!
If you think Derrida & Foucault et al made it possible for the 45 administration to spout lies and defund science, your conception of how change actually happens is totally wrong and I’ve got a reading list for you.
Maybe opportunists like Cernovich read some critical theory in college, but that doesn’t mean critical theory made them do the evil stuff they do. They probably were forced to read Whitman too like everyone else and we are not blaming Leaves of Grass.
So if you take one thing away from this rant, get this through your thick skull so we don’t have to teach it again: Investigating how truth is constructed is not the same thing as saying all truths are equal or there is no truth.
Next big mistake: Yes, a lot of critical theory is hard to understand. You know why? Because the people that freaking wrote critical theory read a lot more books than you and thought about things harder than you and were engaged in conversations you know little about and wrote in languages you don’t read.
The fact that you get confused when you read critical theory doesn’t mean it is wrong or not useful and if you can’t understand it, read some freaking Terry Eagleton or some other gateway text until you can start to grok it.
Adorno actually wrote to be hard to understand ON PURPOSE because he wanted you to have to WORK to understand, because some understanding is NOT EASY! You are not the center of the universe my friend.
Another big mistake in this whole sorry mess is the muddled thinking that the central agenda of critical theory was to promote the interests of people of different classes, genders, races, sexualities, abilities, etc.
Yes, yes, yes, my son. Many writers in the critical theory tradition investigate how power/knowledge relates to identity, and some are themselves people with non-dominant identities.
You know why? Because guess what? When you investigate power/knowledge, what do you find?
You find how power/knowledge shapes identity, most especially, how power/knowledge shapes other identities in relation to dominant identities.
If you are going to do critical theory (or really any legitimate social science) responsibly, you can’t help but connect with intersections of power/knowledge and class, gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.
So all that is not the agenda of critical theory, it is critical theory’s findings. Read’em and weep!
Do people with non-dominant identities, poor people, women, people of color, LGBTQ+, the differently abled — let’s call them social justice warriors (SJWs) for short — have a special interest in critical theory?
Yes they do! You know why?
Do SJWs have a special interest in critical theory? YES! Because SJWs are freaking oppressed by dominant power/knowledge that’s why.
And that’s why you should have an interest in critical theory too, unless you don’t give a freak about the culture in which you live.
So to recap about critical theory: it’s not relativism, it’s hard to understand for reasons, and it’s not a SJW agenda, it’s an exposure of why we should all be SJWs.
So why is this ridiculous argument that “PoMo” or critical theory caused “post-truth society” alive in the USA?
Guess what? Critical theory itself can tell us why.
There is an academic machine in the USA that got built by the GI Bill after WWII. It’s job was to deliver higher education to a lot of people, some of whom were to go on to be part of the machine to deliver more higher education.
Meanwhile, critical theory was doing some pretty sophisticated investigations into power/knowledge, mostly in Europe.
The academic machine in the USA sucked in Europe’s critical theory and spit it out in the form of a bunch of people who were trained to reproduce the form of critical theory, but not necessarily advance it or apply it critically to new contexts.
Critical theory shows us that this is actually a USA specialty: taking stuff from someplaces else and massproducing it, not necessarily with the same quality.
So has there been a lot of BS critical theory in USA grad schools? YES!
Does that invalidate critical theory, or does that help us think about what USA grad schools are really doing?
On top of that, there’s a very focused effort to devalue intellectualism (and science) in the USA and it has adopted this misguided critique of critical theory to further its nefarious ends.
If you adopt this misguided critique, you are abetting those nefarious ends.
SO: wake the freak up and stop blaming Derrida for this horrible situation we find ourselves in.
Don’t be a naive patsy that plays into this scam!
Join the SJWs in investigating power/knowledge to build a more equitable and just society for everyone!