Postmodernism and Progress

How I became and then stopped being a postmodernist

Note: In between posts on political science, I’ll tell a few biographical stories. Hopefully that will alleviate the tedium and humanize things a bit. Here’s the first one.

How I Became a Postmodernist

There has been a lot of debate about postmodernism recently with the tempest around Lindsay and Pluckrose’s book Cynical Theories. They argue that current cancel culture and the excesses of identity politics have their roots in French postmodernist or poststructuralist theory. I’ll skip a real engagement with their book because I haven’t read it or feel qualified to discuss it. (You can find what looks like a good pretty critique here.) 

Instead, I’ll provide some biography about my own experience with postmodern theory, which I’ll define minimally as works by French theorists like Foucault, Derrida, and their American epigones. (I recognize that there are significant differences among these theories and I may be conflating postmodernism, poststructuralism, and critical theory among other trends.) My own story might help others who are deciding which thinkers to admire and how to be critical of them.

I was once an avid admirer of postmodern or poststructuralist thinkers, let’s say from my sophomore year in college in 1990 to around my first year in grad school in political science in 1996, when they quickly lost their attractiveness to me. To set the context, the ngrams below show how postmodernism and poststructuralism were both taking off around this time.

Trying to reconstruct my thinking at the time, I suppose the key fact behind my admiration was their story of progress. Though these theorists themselves surely did not believe in teleology or progress, their interpretation of the history of philosophy struck me as very much a Whiggish one with them at the pinnacle. They had uncovered the key flaws in just about all previous theorizing, whether the privileging of binaries or whatever. In an interview, I saw Moishe Postone put it this way: “I think one of the ironies with a lot of post-Marxism is that it’s resolutely against the idea of progress, except epistemologically. There’s been epistemological progress. Foucault is closer to the truth than Marx or Weber or Durkheim or Freud.” 

Of course, I wanted to be on the right side of history and so it seemed essential to learn the latest and therefore truest theories. Just as natural scientists would want to be au courant with the newest understandings, surely the same was true for philosophy or “thinking” in general. If there was one thing that one could take away from postmodern theorists, it was a capsule history of philosophy with them at the conclusion. I think they are a lot like Bertrand Russell in this way.

The complexity and difficulty of their theories might have been a second selling point. If it was hard to understand, there must be important truths buried there. I had trouble making it through the hardest stuff. I remember how we all admired a friend who had the fortitude to take a tutorial class which read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit along with Derrida’s Glas. The height of my reading was several allusive books by Mark Taylor, but I was more at home with easier to read theorists like Baudrilliard.

Together these two factors made me feel that I was smarter (and braver?) than others who were unwilling or unable to take this final step. Again, I didn’t grapple with the “hardest” stuff myself, though I was willing to acknowledge its importance. I have heard that other schools of thought provide this same feeling, though for different reasons. I’m thinking here of Ayn Rand for many young people.

How did I respond to those who told me that I was headed in the wrong direction? Strangely enough, I was an economics major and I remember a couple of conversations with professors who did not understand why I would want to head in this direction as opposed to trying to find practical ways to alleviate poverty. While I can’t remember my response, I suppose it was that getting to the root of these philosophical problems would in some undefined way solve the more practical ones. We might, for example, figure out what exploitation actually was. In any case, didn’t we value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. If they were right, if they had progressed the most, then we needed to study them.

How I Stopped Being a Postmodernist

My enchantment by this kind of theory lasted until grad school. I applied to study political theory (despite not having taken any classes in either political theory or political science before applying) and my application mentioned Laclau and Mouffe as the kind of people I wanted to study (despite not having read very much of either of them). I had heard that they were the cutting edge people where politics was concerned. Strangely I was accepted and enrolled at Princeton, whose theory faculty at the time was described as ranging from democratic liberals to liberal democrats. I’ll say more about my decision to enroll there in another post.

I don’t recall a professor in grad school ever delivering a knock-down argument that weaned me from postmodern thinkers. Typically they were never even mentioned, which may have been enough of a message. Other grad students were probably more dismissive (Jacob Levy was an intellectual leader among grad students at the time). I do recall a professor who offhandedly mentioned that he had spent several years trying to understand Hegel’s theory of property and viewed that time as entirely wasted. Hegel, of course, was the ur-thinker for many poststructuralists.

Positively, though, I could see that more standard traditions had just as much complexity and real questions that were important and unresolved. Postmodernism wasn’t distinct as an endgame or in its difficulty. And reading clearer arguments, say, Rawls, had its pleasures. It made it easier to study for comps and one didn’t have to worry about missing key ideas. The research projects that flowed from these traditions were much clearer too (even if I didn’t end up pursuing them). Probably taking course after course from liberals - Kateb, Gutmann, Waldron, Holmes - somehow seeped in even as I was giving up political theory and becoming an empiricist. Martha Nussbaum’s takedown of Judith Butler was published around this time too and probably helped as did the whole ethos of Arts & Letters Daily and Lingua Franca, which were popular then. In short, I learned a new story of progress that seemed more true.

All of this conspired to lead me away from postmodern thinking. The tradition still exerts a residual fascination for me, though today it is more in reading criticisms or explications. Stephen Holmes’s Anatomy of Antiliberalism may be tendentious, but it did show me some worrisome implications of the postmodern tradition and gave me a set of arguments to justify my path. Mark Lilla’s essays collected in The Reckless Mind and The Shipwrecked Mind were even better as they showed some generosity towards their subjects even as he criticized them.

What are some takeaways from my trajectory?

  • Telling a disciplinary story of progress is useful in attracting recruits, especially if it extends to the beginnings of human thought and purports to turn it all on its head. Liberalism perhaps once told a story like this, but it seemed to reach a conclusion - Fukuyama’s The End of History - which wasn’t as appealing.

  • Abstruseness and obscurity are sometimes selling points, ie, features rather than bugs, though this is probably only true in the short-run given how the trajectory of poststructuralism has played out. Critics to the contrary, it’s appeal in academia is not large, especially among departments that employ the most faculty and teach the most students.

Do I regret this trajectory? In retrospect it would have been better to have spent my energy on math, history, or languages. Yet, this stuff did get me excited about thinking and made me believe in the academic mission. Other fields might not have been so electrifying. Probably there was a life-cycle effect that I couldn’t avoid - ie, socialist while young, conservative when old. The mood of the time might have mattered as well. I was in college just as these fields were taking off. Nevertheless, I probably would have been better served by a professor patiently explaining where I was headed wrong. Whether I would have listened is another story.