Postmodernism is just a form of artistic criticism, but conservative intellectuals are constantly attacking it these days. Liberals are mostly perplexed by the attacks, if they think about them at all. What the heck is going on?

On the right side of the political spectrum (by most standards), we have statements like these:

  • “Postmodernism, in many ways — especially as it’s played out politically — is the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits.” — Jordan Peterson
  • “Obama is the first postmodern president.” — Ben Shapiro
  • “These folks form the current Far Left, including those who would be described as communists, socialists, anarchists, Antifa, as well as social justice warriors (SJWs). These are all very different groups, but they all share a postmodernist ethos.” — Michael Aaron
  • “Between the Carybde of pseudo-empiricism and the Scylla of postmodernism.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • “Since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities. It’s come to dominate all of the humanities — which are dead as far as I can tell — and a huge proportion of the social sciences.” — Jordan Peterson
  • “Everything to the postmodernists is about power.” — Jordan Peterson
  • “Is postmodernism inherently authoritarian?” — Zane Beal

These are supposedly serious public intellectuals in the age of global warming, trade wars, nuclear re-armament, and a global lack of Marxism in any major country saying in print remarkably absurd, histrionic, and hyperbolic things about an approach to criticizing art.

What is postmodernism?

There are some critics of literature, art, and architecture who are using postmodernism in the field from which it initially emerged. They are actually talking about its basics as an aesthetic approach to understanding artistic works and putting them in different contexts. It’s all very high-brow and mostly irrelevant, but postmodernist criticism in these realms has been around for decades.

Photo: Jean-Philippe Delberghe/Unsplash

In architecture, modernism is a huge thing; its tenets include having form follow function, exterior volumes matching interior volumes, lack of superficial decoration, and honesty of materials and finishing. Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright are a subset of the architects who worked in this mode. It’s turned into the International Style and has become a generic default for new buildings, at least in places I hang around. Postmodernism in this context was a reaction to modernism, with fun volumes of low functional merit, decoration, and the like arising from the sometimes grim excesses (concrete brutalism anyone?) of modernism. Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Daniel Libeskind are good examples of postmodernist architects.

In literature, postmodernism led fairly directly from structuralism, which broke apart the relationship between the signified and the signifier. That concept seems trivial to anyone who has studied more than one language, where “oeuf” and “egg” are obviously not the same thing as the physical ovoid produced by a hen, but it has a useful intellectual purpose. In literary criticism, it led to critics such as Stanley Fish, whose textbook on criticism is entitled Is There a Text in This Class? — to which it answered a resounding “no.” As a literary form, postmodernism led to a lot of experimentation about what constituted a novel or a short story and possibly led to some of the more interesting and persistent forms of entertainment and art we have today.

Most of what actually gets written about postmodernism comes from this group. Doesn’t seem that harmful does it? Some academics criticizing art and literature from a specific point of view in dusty academic halls? It’s a bit hard to understand what all the fuss is about when you look at it that way.

What the heck is going on with conservatives?

There are a few arguably lesser threads of postmodernist thought that start to become interesting to find out why all of these bright people on the right are frothing at the mouth.

Let’s talk about relativism. This is the philosophical doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context and are not absolute. Further, for matters of art, literature, culture, and the like, no one actually has a privileged opinion which must be deferred to. This frosts conservative’s shorts in three ways.

The first is the moral relativism part. Conservative thinkers are dominated by social conservatives. Peterson is a self-identified Christian. Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew. Taleb is Greek Orthodox. You might see where this is going. An attack on postmodernism is in many cases an attack on moral relativism by religious people who have more absolute perspectives on right and wrong.

People with right-wing leanings also tend to be authoritarians… The postmodernist concept that there isn’t anyone with a privileged perspective makes them a bit crazy.

The second is the lack of authority. People with right-wing leanings also tend to be authoritarians. They want respect. They want their opinions listened to and, more importantly, taken as gospel. The postmodernist concept that there isn’t anyone with a privileged perspective makes them a bit crazy.

The third is the lack of a recognized canon as part of a rejection of tradition. E.D. Hirsch Jr. is probably the go-to conservative here. His work around cultural literacy was a resounding cry for the traditional canon of great literature to be taught throughout schools. What does this great canon have in common? The vast majority of the authors are dead white men. Great black, Japanese, Indian, and female authors don’t make an appearance. He was big around the same time that conservatives were freaking out about Ebonics.

What does postmodernism say about the canon? That it should be inclusive of a lot of modern non-white and female authors and that the historical greats aren’t necessarily better, they just came first. Oh, and that hip-hop is as deserving of critical assessment as classical music.

But then there’s the flip side of the postmodernism and conservatism problem.

We get to a blip a couple of decades ago, the so-called Science Wars. On one side, we had postmodernist philosophers who extended postmodernist thought until it broke by trying to make it apply to non-subjective things such as the scientific method. They were saying that science itself was just someone’s unprivileged opinion and not actually the basis of all of our useful understanding of the world and cosmos. On the other side, we had every empiricist in the world looking at them as if they’d grown three eyes. This mostly played out in dusty academia and academic journals. Occasionally it broke free into the broader realm of public discourse, and a small subset of actual scientists told them how nuts they were with example after example after example.

That’s right, global warming deniers have embraced postmodernist views on science. It’s all become “truthy.”

Why is this obvious silliness important? Because one of the underpinnings of the overly ambitious postmodernists was their love of Thomas Kuhn, author of the rightly celebrated The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that was published in 1962 and, more than anyone else, the person who made the phrase “paradigm shift” important. The postmodernists liked what he had to say, and they pretended it meant something different and more than it did.

Similarly, the work of philosopher of science Karl Popper is seen as an influence on postmodernism even though he rejected postmodernism. His biggest contribution was the concept that in order for a scientific theory to be valid, it had to be falsifiable. (He said it this way, of course: “A theory is falsifiable, as we saw in section 23, if there exists at least one non-empty class of homotypic basic statements which are forbidden by it; that is, if the class of its potential falsifiers is not empty.”)

So we have Kuhn, Popper, postmodernists, and science. What does this have to do with conservatives? Well, one of the primary tribal points of conservatives right now is “skepticism” of climate change. And guess what? Kuhn and Popper are brought up by a subset of “skeptics” quite regularly. They and Paul Feyerabend are regularly referenced in the pages of climate-change denial sites such as Watts Up With That. While Kuhn and Popper don’t get referenced directly by Judith Curry on her eponymous skeptical site, she has a guest post about Popper where both he and Kuhn are referenced regularly in the comments. Curry does have an extended post about Feyerabend, whom she cites admiringly.

That’s right, global warming deniers have embraced postmodernist views on science. It’s all become “truthy.” This isn’t a surprise at all, given the rise of post-factual discourse on the right. Global warming is an obvious example, but anti-vaccination views have shot up on the right while staying steady or declining on the left. Similarly, Public Policy Polling has documented an astonishing set of perspectives by conservatives on how the economy was completely destroyed by President Barack Obama that were completely counterfactual.

So this is my formulation of why conservative and liberals are talking past one another about postmodernism. Liberals are talking about it from the perspective of a way of looking at art and architecture, if they talk about it at all. They consider relativism to be a completely obvious statement with religions being pretty equal to one another. They are unclear why there’s a fuss about this. And they miss the postmodernist underpinnings of the modern conservative war on science.

Conservatives are reacting to postmodernism as an attack on their values and on the respect they think they and the things they like deserve and also are internalizing its least useful line of thought. The lack of any coherent truth in political discourse is a much stronger element on the right at present. It’s swung back and forth a bit, but complete mendacity is a feature of the top ranks of the Republican Party right now.

Others have pointed out that, in fact, it’s the conservatives who have been captured by postmodernism. This rings very true. Basically, every time conservatives yell something at liberals these days, it’s because they are guilty of it themselves. Why not postmodernism, or at least its worst attributes, as well?