Don’t Absolve Postmodernism So Quickly

To the Editor:

In his recent article, “Stop Blaming Postmodernism for Post-Truth Politics” (The Chronicle Review, August 4), Andrew J. Perrin argues that detractors hold up a shallow caricature of postmodernism and an “exaggerated estimation of its effects.”

He provides a nice, if dense, description of the correct way to interpret postmodern theory and then accuses detractors of “pining for a space safe from power and contention.” He says we have to face up to the reality of radical complexity and ideological pluralism.

Fair enough. But Perrin misses the point. We don’t control how ideas are interpreted once they are out in the world — or who uses and misuses them. Postmodern theory was almost impossible to read and almost always simplified for pedagogical purposes. Its main idea was that “truth” was unstable, contingent, contested. We were told this would make us feel uncomfortable, but that recognizing it was a first step toward liberation from the cultural hegemony that prevented positive social change.

It turns out that that cultural hegemony also prevented what might be seen as negative social change, such as the alt-right and Trump’s unexpected election.

The post-truth political world we live in now is the result of social fragmentation and the disintegration of what was left of the old 20th century establishment. Many factors contributed to this fragmentation, including neoliberalism, social media, and globalization. Nonetheless, postmodernist thought also played a role. Its celebrators trained a generation of college students to deconstruct social norms, to call out what’s wrong or racist or sexist about a particular social arrangement, and to question any stabilizing rhetorical move invested in maintaining the status quo. But it didn’t teach them how to defend truths as such once the status quo was torn asunder. And as Angela Nagle’s recent Kill All Normies shows, it has been the alt-right that has most effectively used postmodern ideas to “deconstruct” what it sees as a distinctly liberal hegemony.

None of this is to say postmodern thought should or could have been avoided; intellectually, it was necessary and enlightening. But as the old conservative Richard Weaver once wrote, ideas have consequences.

Jennifer Delton
Professor of History
Skidmore College

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