The school’s degeneracy into post-truth was never inevitableby Julian Baggini / April 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the 20 years since Jean-François Lyotard died, on 21st April 1998, the reputation of the idea most associated with him has plummeted. Most today see postmodernism as a busted flush. Its early, left-wing proponents saw it as a form of emancipation against the hegemony of elite power. The assault on truth has led instead to the reactionary populism of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin.
As long ago as 2004, Bruno Latour even issued a kind of mea culpa, admitting that “a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies.” Once the scourge of scientists, he last year said “We will have to regain some of the authority of science,” insisting that he had never been anti-science, simply that there was “some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.”
Before we dance on postmodernism’s grave, however, we ought to check more carefully just what corpse lies buried. “Postmodernism” has for a long time become an ill-defined catch-all for any vaguely relativistic form of continental European thought. For example, in his otherwise excellent Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker lumps Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida together as postmodernists even though none saw themselves as such.
What we call “postmodernism” is usually nothing more than a vague cultural mood or attitude, one which joyfully denies any claims to objective truth and revels in the multiplicity of different perspectives or “narratives.” This is what I pronounced dead after 9/11 in a 2002 piece for Prospect. It is sloppy, dangerous, and we are right to fight it.
In retrospect, however, I can see that I was not careful enough to distinguish postmodernism’s crudest manifestations from its much more interesting philosophical roots. Reading Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition today, it’s easier to see how much he got right, and why so much that was done in postmodernism’s name was an aberration.