Descriptive Postmodernism

I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Postmodernism (PoMo) from attack, so I am publishing this, so I can link to it. Perhaps I am not defending PoMo, but my flavour of it, but I’ve read a lot of work published by the usual suspects—some who eschew being lumped into a poorly defined category—or at least a nebulous category.

Before I get too far, I also want to remind the reader to take care to separate the philosophy from the person. One popular attack is the conflating of identity politics and social justice advocacy as PoMo phenomena. In fact, I consider myself to be PoMO—to be defined here in a moment—and a social justice warrior (SJW), this despite contesting the very notion of identity to begin with.

By definition, a summary is a reduction of some thing, but one needs to be careful not not arrive at reductio ad absurdum. Where appropriate, one may also wish to differentiate postmodernism with postructuralism. So as not to create a definition partir de rien, I’ll reference other accessible versions. A critic may disagree with these definitions, but they will serve as the foundation of my position and vantage.

Wikipedia gives us this definition (their reference links retained):

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of scepticismirony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us this

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

Notice the commonalities. PoMo is a descriptive, critical activity. It’s descriptive. As language and grammar can be approached descriptively of prescriptively, so can philosophy. Some ‘schools’ do both. PoMo is exclusively descriptive. PoMo was born as a reaction to Modernism, especially the unstated foundations labelled by Lyotard as metanarratives—the grand narratives and underlying ideologies of prevailing beliefs that were uncritically taken for granted, many of which that were formed or catalysed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”[4] where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.[3]

My defence is that PoMo cannot be for social justice or engage in identity, as it has no positive position on these. It functions to critically deconstruct. People unfamiliar with PoMo concepts often misunderstand this notion of deconstruction. All to often, I see people criticise Derrida for his brand of Deconstruction, but that only illustrates the fact that they never read or simply misunderstand what Derrida means by Deconstruction. Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on that in future.

My point is that PoMo is corrosive—like lye. It eats away at ideologies, dissolves them. It is not meant to construct anything. So where does this constructive expectation come from? It derives primarily from two places.


Most people casting dispersion are modernists. They need to construct things. To be fair, this perspective has been an evolutionary advantage, but some people can’t allow a bunch of Lego pieces to remain unconstructed. This is fine, but you need another tool to perform this task. It’s not PoMo.

Ad Hominem

The other challenge is the inability to distinguish between the person and the idea. Michel Foucault was very vocal in the political realm and actively promoted Marxism, but, firstly, Foucault was not a self-professed PoMo—and for several reasons, one could come to accord with his assessment; secondly, in his deconstruction of history, he discovered a foundational component—this activity being squarely PoMo—, but he reconstructed historical narratives employing the lens of power. This rebuilding is not PoMo activity.

Parting Shot

Besides—or in addition to—ignorance, some people have an agenda, and they play ad hominem games, so if they can vilify a person and associate that person to an ideology, it can have the tendency of poisoning the well. Uncritical people won’t even notice the sleight of hand and redirect.

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance*

Hanlon’s Razor

A textbook example is Stephen Hick’s attempt in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault to conflate feminism (a positive mechanism) with postmodernism (to reiterate, a negative mechanism). In it he claims that feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mckinnon are proponents of PoMo thought, but he is apparently unaware that McKinnon has explicitly attacked PoMo as destructive to feminism. A fuller critique of Hicks‘ work can be heard on YouTube. I recommend it highly if you have the better part of an hour to spare. Jordan B Peterson is a celebrity personality whose primary exposure to PoMo is Hicks, so when you understand how off-base Hicks is, you’ll realise why Peterson is so off-base, too.

* Hanlon’s razor is originally cast as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, but I prefer the term ignorance, as it it less value-laden and more broadly applicable. Besides, to be ignorant does not mean to be stupid. Many ignorant people are not stupid. I am ignorant of the Russian language, but I am not stupid.

Fables of the Deconstruction

To some extent or another, humans appear to need order—some more than others. Societies are a manifestation of order, and we’ve got subcultures for those who don’t fit in with the mainstream. Humans are also a story-telling lot, which helps to provide a sense of order. Metanarratives are a sort of origin story with a scintilla of aspiration toward some imagined semblance of progress.

Some people appear to be more predisposed to need to ride this metanarrative as a lifeboat. These people are typically Conservative, authority-bound traditionalists, but even the so-called Progressives need this thread of identity. The problem seems to come down to a sort of tolerance versus intolerance split, a split along the same divide as created by monotheism in the presence of polytheism.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Won’t Get Fooled Again — The Who

In a polytheistic world, when two cultures collided, their religious pantheons were simply merged. In a blink, a society might go from 70 gods to 130. On this basis, there was a certain tolerance. Monotheism, on the other hand, is intolerant—a winner takes all death match. The tolerant polytheists might say, sure, you’ve got a god? Great. He can sit over there by the elephant dude. Being intolerant like a petulant schoolboy, the monotheists would throw a tantrum at the thought that there might be other gods on the block. Monotheists won’t even allow demigods, though there is the odd saint or two.

This is a battle between absolutism and relativism. The relativist is always in a weaker arguing position because intolerant absolutists are convinced that their way is the only way, yet the tolerant relativists are always at risk of being marginalised. This is what Karl Popper was addressing with the Paradox of Tolerance.

In a functioning society, a majority of the metanarratives are adopted by the majority of its constituent. On balance, these metanarratives are somewhat inviolable and more so by the inclined authoritarians.

A problem is created when a person or group disagrees with the held views. The ones espousing these views—especially the Traditionals—become indignant. What do you mean there are more than two genders? You are either male or female. Can’t you tell by the penis?

I happened to read a tweet by the GOP declaring their stupidity:

America the Stupid

The Vice President, a living anachronism and proxy for the American Midwest Rust Belt superimposed on the Bible Belt, he tells his sheep that “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment that America ceases to be America…” Americans as a whole are pretty dim, and it seems to get dimmer the higher one ascends their government. Pence seems very firm in affirming a notion of American identity, but not accepting that identities change. He may become upset if he finds out that George Washington is dead—in fact, there are very few remnants of the original United States aside from some dirt, trees, and a few edifices—and the country is still the county. Some people have a difficult time grasping identity. It makes me wonder if he fails to recognise himself in the mirror after he gets his hair cut.

The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue… The idea is to disarm the bombs… of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants…

Jacques Derrida

Interesting to me is how people complain about this and that politically. Most of this is somewhat reflexive and as phatic as a ‘how are you?’, but some is more intentional and actioned. Occasionally, the energy is kinetic instead of potential, but the result is always the same: One power structure is replaced by another.

What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one

Jacques Lacan

As Lacan noted, as people, we believe ourselves to be democratic, but most of us appear to be finding and then worshipping some authority figures who will promise us what we desire. We desire to have someone else in charge, who can make everything OK, someone who is in a sense an ideal parent. I don’t believe this to be categorical, but I do believe that there is a large contingent of people who require this.

As an aside, I’ve spent a lot of time (let’s call it a social experiment) in the company of social reprobates. What never ceases to amaze me is how these social outcasts seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and how things should be. Conveniently, they exempt themselves from this scope, so if they steel to buy drugs, it’s OK, but if someone else gets caught, they should get what’s coming to them.

About a year ago I was chatting with a mate, and I shared an observation that the biggest substance abusers in high school—”the Man’s not going hold me down” cohort—are the biggest conservatives. A girl a few houses down from me became a stripper, but her political views are very Conservative, an avid Trump supporter.

One woman I know is a herion-addicted prostitute. In her eyes, she’s fine (sort of—without getting into psychoanalytics); other women are junkie whores. A heavy dose of assuaged cognitive dissonance is the prescription for this, but it confounds me.

Getting back to the original topic, people who need this order are resistant to deconstruction and other hallmark notions of poststructuralism. They need closure. This translates into a need for metanarratives. When confronted with the prospect of no Truth, they immediately need to find a substitute—speculatively, anyway, as denial and escalating commitment will kick into overdrive.

The same problem mentioned above comes into play here. A few years ago, there was an Occupy Wall Street group, and like atheists, there are myriad reasons why people participated. One of the commonest complaints by the power structure and the public at large is if you don’t like the status quo, what status should replace it. None of the above was never an acceptable response.

It doesn’t matter that in this universe we occupy there is more disorder than order, and entropy rules, pareidolia is the palliative. And religion remains an opiate of the masses.

Please ignore my clear misappropriate of the classic R.E.M. album.