In its maddening inaccessibility, postmodern thought seems like the quintessential ivory-tower discipline, vital only in the desolate hinterlands of the college library basement. But this is a fallacy, for postmodernism has powerful reverberations in our modern political landscape. To explain what I mean by postmodern thought within a few pithy sentences (if such a thing can be done), it is a school of thought in which objective truth and objective morality are rejected as absolute categories, and in their stead, socially constructed categories and discourses are acknowledged as influential qualifiers and quantifiers that form our social world. It is through the deconstruction of these discourses that postmoderns criticize the falsely-perceived concreteness of society, reality and identity, rather emphasizing the centrality of context and subjectivity in their creation.
For instance, postmodernism asks the question, in society, how do we come to define the terms “normal” and “other?” Who gets left out of normalcy and why? Around which characteristics did the term “normal” coalesce and why did it happen this way? Whose interests are served by the creation and adherence to these categories and whose identity and being is rendered “subaltern” by these categories?
Taken in the political sense, inseparable from the project of post-modernism, modern day liberals dissect the political significance of such categories, investigating which axes of power have benefited and which have been harmed by their usage and entrenchment. For instance, the American political tradition focuses heavily on the importance of the individual and the value of individualism. But who gets defined as an individual? At one time this category referred only to white males, excluding women and a massive population of black slaves who didn’t count as people, let alone all the other brown, red and yellow savages encountered in America’s numerous military and imperial ventures. Furthermore, a deconstruction of this concept would ask, which relationships does the idea of individualism assume? Obviously, few. The rugged individualist is free from the bonds of social obligation and is thus at liberty to pursue his own ends. But how does the framing of this idea leave out relationships of care, such as between women and their children and the dependent elderly, central to the human experience? These questions lead one to ask whether the term “individual” adequately captures the full expression of one’s humanity, yet in the American political tradition, this is often the only term considered politically relevant.
The deconstruction of such ideas leads to the deconstruction of terms built on them, such as capitalism and the free market, which assume individual self interest and agency. Whose interests are served in the pursuit of capital, postmoderns ask? Who has been left out in the globalization of the free market? These terms are cast in a new light when examining those excluded or left worse off by these institutions, such as the laboring class, whose interests are inverse to those of the capitalist under capitalism, and the global south, upon whose cheap labor the industrialized world depends in the globalized free market (although these observations were made long before postmodernism came along, but was probably its necessary precursor).
Considering how such institutions and ideologies have panned out for some, postmodern-minded liberals attempt to reexamine old textbooks axioms such as “everyone benefits from competition”. From economics, to religion, to politics and beyond, postmoderns seek to deconstruct the power dynamics behind ideas and institutions with the end goal (if one can be so brash as to assume one) of highlighting the fallacy of ultimate truth, objectivity and morality, maintaining a wariness of supposed teleologies and heightening awareness of the significance of context, locality, subjectivity and… (gasp) relativity.
It is such a philosophical outlook that seems to put liberals at loggerheads with conservatives. Take the term terrorism, for instance. Who is and who is not a terrorist? How did this term come to embody a certain identity and not another? Why can this term be used for some and not for others? By which powers has this term come to occupy such a central role in modern international politics and what is the agenda of these powers? There is a certain ease with which some people can equivocate between an insurgent, launching rockets into a neighboring town, and a helicopter gunner, launching white phosphorous into a heavily populated area, and yet, there is a complete disgust and indignance with which some disavow any such equivocation. This seems to be a critical difference between liberals and conservatives. Whereas the latter concretely see forces of good fighting the forces of evil in the name of and to promote good, the former sees one set of ideologies and unique subjectivities violently manifesting their historical grievances, neither of which can be completely deligitimized. The same is the case with national phenomena as well; whereas conservatives see postmodern values threatening deeply held notions of country and traditional values, liberals see “country” and “traditional values” as fluid and subjective terms to begin with.
However, as wary as conservatives seem to be with the ideologies behind postmodernism, I’d like to point out that conservatives are just as postmodern—in their own way. Take for instance the recent conservative backlash to healthcare reform. Some conservative voices were arguing that the implementation of a government run health service might lead to a Kafkaesque if not Nazi policy of “death panels” whereby some lives (read—the elderly) are devalued, and the costs of sustaining such lives considered “prohibitive”. Upon deeper examination, I think the claims conservatives have made in this instance are entirely postmodern; who gets medical services and why? How do we measure whose life is worthy of treatment, and thus saving and how do we measure whose is not? Whose interests are met under such a plan? The answer here is fascist, social-engineering, elite, intellectual liberals, just as the answer to who benefits from capitalism was fascist, elite, white, male Westerners for the postmoderns.
Also, take for instance this passage from the Conservative blog, “American Thinker”, in which the author criticizes the new movement of “post-modernizing” science:
“Postmodernism developed into a political philosophy with Marxist/socialist roots. Its general tenets reflect a deep-seated disdain for the philosophical roots of Western thought, specifically repudiating individualism, an inherently American trait, as well as Western characteristics of objectivity, truth, reason, and logic — all concepts fundamental to scientific method.
That’s where post-normal science (PNS) comes in. According to the “inventors” of PNS, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, it is supposedly a scientific method of inquiry appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.” What they describe however is more accurately recognized as politics than science, which is precisely the point: In postmodernism, everything is politics. And the aberration from “normal” science to post-normal science is designed for the purpose of manipulating and controlling high-stakes political artifice like “man-made global warming.” This is not about determining “truth,” which the advocates of post-normal science don’t believe in — it is about the power and control of politics.
Ravetz, again, quoted in Climate Change and the Death of Science:
‘This is a drastic cultural change for science, which many scientists will find difficult to accept. But there is no turning back; we can understand post-normal science as the extension of democracy appropriate to the conditions of our age.
For us, quality is a replacement for truth in our methodology. We argue that this is quite enough for doing science, and that truth is a category with symbolic importance, which itself is historically and culturally conditioned. [Emphasis added.]’”
Take notice of his response to the book’s quoted passage:
“Really? Science as the extension of democracy? “Quality” as a replacement for “truth”? How exactly does that work? Which czar defines quality? Who determines what “truths” are replaced — East Anglia University’s miscreant peer-reviewers?”
In perhaps the greatest twist of irony, the author out-postmodernizes the postmoderns; The very same tools liberals use to deconstruct certain entrenched institutions and traditional values are also used to defend them from those that would deconstruct them!
Or take for instance the liberal value of social justice, used by the left to promote the movement toward equal rights, addressing historical injustices, and perhaps most controversially, the redistribution of wealth.
For conservatives, the term “social justice” is just about de-constructible as it can get. Consider Glenn Beck’s recent tirade against churches that preach social justice, which he sees as a code word for Communism or Nazism:
“I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”
Holding up two photos one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika, he continued:
“Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That’s what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ‘social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.”
Once again, in pure postmodern practice, Beck is asking what is truly behind the term “social justice” and whose interests and what political agenda does it serve?
However, one need not venture into the bog of insanity known as Fox News to witness this kind of conservative postmodernism. Plenty of very intelligent people on the right end of the spectrum, from Antony Flew to Robert Nozick have written about the pretense “social justice” serves for the illegitimate an unjust seizing of ones justly earned property.
It turns out that liberals aren’t the only ones wary of the historical and political repercussions of ideologies and institutions and their teleologies; neither side is opposed to deconstruction, but neither wants to be on the bad end of what’s being deconstructed.
The point in all this? It seems to me we turn our national discourse into a travesty by expending so much time and energy delegitimizing the ideological foundations of the opposing side instead of recognizing how much we share in common. One needn’t be an elite, intellectual, liberal postmodernist to challenge the political agendas behind certain institutions and ideologies because we all do it; liberal or conservative, we all ask the question of why is something the way it is and who stands to gain from it. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything characteristically postmodern about the questions mentioned throughout this article; pick up any piece of angsty teenage literature and you’ll find a veritable smorgasbord of deconstructivism.
In their essence, these questions seek to chart out the divide between the stated aim of an ideology or institution and its historical consequences. This is a vitally important undertaking if we as a society wish to have a mature conversation about our social and political landscape. Hopefully we can all grow up a little.