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.
Lyotard’s subtitle, A Report on Knowledge, is key to understanding the nature of his exercise. Lyotard was not primarily prescribing what knowledge should be but attempting to describe the actual state of what passes for knowledge and its production in the late twentieth century. So when he wrote “knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question” he was simply describing the way in which the control of what passes for knowledge has been captured by power. He was not saying what knowledge and truth are eternally and essentially one.
Understood in this descriptive way, Lyotard said a lot in his 1979 essay that sounds prescient today. One of his key claims was that “In matters of social justice and of scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimising the system’s performance—efficiency.” You only have to look at the way in which universities have increasingly become handmaidens to economic growth to see the truth in that. “Universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals,” he wrote. “Research sectors that are unable to argue that they contribute even indirectly to the optimisation of the system’s performance are abandoned by the flow of capital and doomed to senescence. The criterion of performance is explicitly invoked by the authorities to justify their refusal to subsidise certain research centres.”
Postmodernists are most vilified for their supposed insistence that science is just another language game, with no special claim to truth. When claiming that even the Nobel Laureate biologist Peter Medawar says that “there is no ‘scientific method’ and that a scientist is before anything else a person who ‘tells stories’,” Lyotard appears to be conforming to this science-debunking stereotype. But he adds, “The only difference is that he is duty bound to verify them.”
The problem is not that science cannot verify its stories, but that the need to do so creates a need for expensive means of doing so. “No money, no proof—and that means no verification of statements and no truth,” says Lyotard. “The equation between wealth, efficiency, and truth is thus established.” Science becomes beholden to those who hold the purse strings and so “Scientists, technicians, and instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment power.” Lyotard doesn’t celebrate this, he worries about it.
There’s much else of interest in The Postmodern Condition. His definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives” remains the clearest and best, despite his own admission it is “simplifying to the extreme.” The postmodern world is characterised not so much by relativism as fragmentation. There is no one overarching source of legitimisation for beliefs or practices. Consensus is only ever local, never global. We see this today in the collapse of left and right, and the unholy alliances between fundamentalist Christians and Trump, Italy’s Cinque Stelle and the far-right Liga. This is far from Lyotard’s hope that the breakdown of consensus would result in a healthy multiplicity, tyranny replaced by negotiation.
Fragmentation is also evident in the labour market. If you want to understand what lies behind the rise of gig economy, Lyotard had a lot to say nearly 40 years ago: “the temporary contract is in practice supplanting permanent institutions in the professional, emotional, sexual, cultural, family, and international domains, as well as in political affairs. This evolution is of course ambiguous: the temporary contract is favoured by the system due to its greater flexibility, lower cost, and the creative turmoil of its accompanying motivations—all of the factors contribute to increased operativity.”
In Lyotard’s hands postmodernism was an often insightful analysis of the changing nature of the ownership and production of knowledge. Lesser minds turned it into a crass attack on any claims to possess knowledge or truth. That degeneracy was never inevitable. “Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative,” wrote Lyotard. “It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity.”