Past, present and future imperfect

Published

James Foley

Postmodernism – where did it come from, and where is it going?

Six years ago I met my first academic at Glasgow University. Thinning tousled hair, wonky spectacles, false teeth mysteriously detached from the gums, and wearing a robe that had seen better days, you might have thought this man was immune to fashionable considerations. Indeed, if you didn’t know better you might have thought he’d crashed through the ceiling into the props department of the latest Harry Potter movie. But on the contrary, this would-be don was quite the academic dandy, for he followed postmodernism. Academics have their own crazy fads: fads of the intellect, not fads of the worldly body.

I was immediately impressed by the bulbous language of postmodernism, and adopted its vocabulary as my own. I quickly learned that it was mostly a matter of adding unlikely prefixes and suffixes to words. So you might have something like “post-Heideggerian metaphysics” or, if you are feeling saucy, “phallogocentric rationality”. Some phrases, like “autoerotic asphyxiation”, sound postmodern but are not. A PhD student once ticked me off for using the phrase “repressive desublimation”, which derives from Herbert Marcuse, who was, so I was told, “consumed by a Freudo-Marxist problematic”.

A lot of people dismiss postmodernism as a theory that uses arcane words to describe the detritus of consumer society. If anyone is to blame for this, it is the postmodernists themselves. However, the generalisation is unfair as a description of the theory as a whole. If every theory was assessed by the routinised habits of its latterday apostles, you would think Marxism was all about selling papers and Christianity was all about organising bake sales. ­­Like these worldviews, postmodernism grew up in specific circumstances that deserve of generous consideration.

The modern ideologies, Marxism and liberalism, share one feature in common: faith that human reason can overcome superstitious idols and administer the world by rational criteria. Both philosophies claimed to be legitimate heirs to the Enlightenment tradition. However, remnants of supposedly “pre-modern” barbarism – war, poverty, religion, sexual violence and oppression – persisted in human conduct. Paradoxically, as capitalism, democracy, and socialist politics were entrenched in modern society, these remnants did not diminish but took on new and violent forms: nationalism, world war, and finally fascism.

Fin de siècle liberal intellectuals like Sigmund Freud and Max Weber issued stern warnings about the “return of the repressed” in mass civilization, while neo-conservatives like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche revelled in a primordial “politics of the will”. The disorientation of modern society, and the terror of “irrational” mass politics, consumed the greatest intellectual minds of the early twentieth century. For the upper classes, the alternative to socialism and democracy was a defensive liberalism, or a decadent festival of aristocratic barbarism.

The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany confirmed the deepest fears and darkest fantasies of the upper classes. An aristocratic leadership with a mass base: at home, a force to take back the streets from the socialists; abroad, a philosophy of expansion and conquest that threatened weaker neighbours and promised hegemony over rivals. Combining the vertiginous thrill of modernity and the savage barbarism of pre-modernity, for déclassé intellectuals fascism was the realisation of mass politics in all its destructive glory.

After the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” is rightfully applied to fascist politics. However, the psychological effects of fascism have varied considerably. For the working class, socialism still embodied their desire to rule the world and administer it for their own ends. This also applied to those sections of the intelligentsia who, perhaps unwittingly, accepted the authority of the Stalinist Communist Party. But large sections of the intelligentsia had never found a home in the modern world.

Modernity tended to extinguish patronage, and they were squeezed between passive subservience to technological society and the ever present threat of the masses.
In 1956, two events prompted a mass exodus from the Western communist parties and swelled the ranks of the disaffected. On February 24-5 1956, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev came clean about some of the horrors of the Soviet regime: in particular, the cult of personality surrounding Stalin and the purge of the party’s upper echelons. Later that year, tanks entered Budapest to crush a spontaneous workers’ uprising against the Soviet-backed regime in Hungary.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, who popularised the term “post-modernism”, came onto the scene at this moment. Like many post-modernists, he started out on the radical left as a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, a small anti-Stalinist Marxist grouping in France. As the group’s politics became increasingly wayward, with a tendency towards jeremiads against “totalitarianism of the left and right”, Lyotard abandoned party politics in the early ‘60s. Like many of his generation, he flirted with mysticism and
considered becoming a Pagan.

1968 was a pivotal moment. Starting with a student rebellion, most of France was consumed with a spontaneous political uprising against Charles De Gaulle’s government, whose authoritarian nationalism had dominated French politics since the Second World War. The movement prompted the largest general strike in history, with 10 million French workers downing tools to bring down the government. Around the world, struggles against imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia seemed to mingle freely in an intoxicating festival of human creativity and potential.

Alas, the movement ended in defeat. For French intellectuals who had participated in the struggles, it was back to the drawing board. But one thing was clear: Marxism, the philosophy of inevitable human progress, was dead.

What was to replace it? Any new outline of human development risked descending into the same “totalitarian” mentality that led to fascism and Stalinism. For disaffected intellectuals, who had experienced great hope and catastrophic defeat, a theoretical worldview was replaced by a mood.

The mood of post-modernism is quite distinct. It accepts, fatalistically, the post-War settlement of rising consumerism under the general rubric of capitalism as an irreversible social development. It cautions against any attempt to counterpose the desirability of social systems and is wildly opposed to any conception of political leadership. Its revelry, and its resistance, stems either from the wild excesses of consumer society or the marginal figures excluded from “rising prosperity” (prisoners, practitioners of “deviant” sexuality, etc).

Like other déclassé intellectual movements, it is possessed by an ethic of authenticity; except that this can only ever be ironic, since the social basis of authenticity has vanished. This is the strange paradox at the heart of postmodernism: it mourns the loss of authenticity. Hence, the characteristic method of postmodernists is to look for gaps and absences in a “reality” formed by manipulated signs and symbols.

Some French inventions look slightly out of place in an Anglo-American context. In my trips to the Dordogne, I have observed that sometimes people really do wear onions round their neck while wearing a striped shirt and riding a 1960s bicycle. And that is fine, for the Dordogne. But repeating the trick on an American college campus would make you a pretentious prick, and on Sauchiehall Street it would get you battered.

The same could be said for postmodernism. Its vocabulary, its method, and its gloomy mood might look cool in a Godard movie. But that is because it grew out of the culture of revolutionary hopes and defeats on the French political left. Anglo-Americans who flirt with postmodernism, like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, are different.

They are a generation who cheerfully bought into the rising prosperity of the professional middle classes. Their characteristic mood is vivacious, rambunctious, and cheerfully liberal. It is not too strong to call them apologists for a quixotic and very American ideology of free-market capitalism.

Po-mos of the Anglo-American variety are, like Nietzsche’s English psychologists, “interesting in themselves”. They are a sociological phenomenon worthy of contemplation. Alas, like many tribes who worship idols, they are dying out. It is a long time since I encountered a self-declared post-modernist. If you meet one on the bus or in the Queen Margaret Union, be generous. Their obscurantist ideas might seem outdated, but remember, they are not long for this world. Very soon, you might wake up in the morning and ask yourself, with wistful nostalgia: “Can we risk a hermeneutic of Hannah Montana?”