Postmodernism isn't to blame for our identity wars
I have been seeing a lot of people lately blaming postmodernism and ‘post-modernists’ for our current malaise with identity politics. But I think this neglects the knowledge base of identity-based ideologies, without which they would fall apart.
These ideas and claims seem to have reached a crescendo with the 'Grievance Studies’ hoax exposing how some identity-focused academic journals are happy to publish weapon-grade nonsense if it aligns to their own political, ideological objectives. (Anyone who is familiar with these ‘disciplines’ and not indoctrinated into them knew that anyway, but big credit to James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian for demonstrating it for the rest of the world in such an entertaining manner)
"Postmodernists pretend to be experts in what they call “theory.” Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose expose this for the lie that it is. “Theory” is not real. Postmodernists have no expertise and no profound understanding."https://t.co/ntapmAipwn— Quillette (@QuilletteM) 3 October 2018
In this Quillette article, five academics respond to the hoax. One of them, Nathan Cofnas says, “Today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion—it’s our culture. . . It has taken over most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, and is even making inroads in STEM fields. It threatens to melt all of our intellectual traditions into the same oozing mush of political slogans and empty verbiage.”
Neema Parvini adds, “It has been the explicit goal of post-modernity to reject reason and evidence: they want a “new paradigm” of knowledge.”
This is a nice dig and demonstrates how postmodernist and similar ideas are certainly used by academics who engage in current leftist identity politics. But this is my point, that they are used. It doesn’t mean they are the source or root cause of identity-based ideologies – which have probably been around in one form or another since man started using words; certainly well before anyone had heard of postmodernism.
Marxism for example has a large identity-based element about the proletariat and bourgeoisie, but Marx and his historicist theory were both very much in the modernist tradition.
Post-modernist denials of objectivity and knowledge serve as a tool, just like other forms of argument serve as tools: to defend ourselves against opponents by undermining their authority, thereby helping to defend our own authority and power. The purpose is primarily political rather than philosophical. Just because someone uses a theoretical argument in a certain political context, it doesn’t mean their whole political standpoint is consistent with that standpoint nor aligns with the whole standpoint of those who came up with it.
As I see it, techniques like deconstruction can be used just as effectively against these ideas and the authority of those who propagate them as by them. Indeed, though I'm not familiar with Derrida's specific version of it, sometimes I think of my own book on identity politics (here reviewed on Quillette) as an exercise in deconstruction, in the sense that I was deconstructing or taking apart an edifice in order to analyse it and hopefully show it for what it is.
There are certainly plenty of problems with postmodernist theory, not least the way it has encouraged people to write incomprehensible nonsense rather than seek to understand and explain what’s going on (which is a pretty big objection to be fair). Also we can see clear evidence of identity activists and ideologues using postmodernist arguments to attack opponents and protect themselves from criticism.
But that doesn’t mean that postmodernism or deconstruction or post-structuralism or whatever is ‘the root cause’ for all our troubles in this area.
Rather, these techniques seem to serve as just more tools in the toolbox: as something available to take out when the need arises; as ways to project power into the world.
If you are looking to attack the theories of identity-based ideologues, I think you are better off starting with their claims to universal knowledge, not their denial of it.