There have been requests from atheists for a lecture on Postmodernism, and it is a relevant topic for several reasons. Postmodernism dominated much of the theoretical discourse in both academe and intellectual circles from the mid 1970’s until about the mid 1990’s. From that fact alone, anyone with an interest in the humanities, especially philosophy, will find it important to learn something about the school of thought which once commanded such attention and hegemony in many of the most consequential universities, particularly in France and the United States. It is also important for non-believers to understand why, since Postmodernism’s thought process involved rejecting Meta narratives, there was still a small crack in its stance that allowed for the acceptance of religion, even perhaps the acceptance of a transcendent other. The flexible attitude toward religion was not matched by Postmodernism’s attack on what some of its practitioners called the meta-narrative of science.
This lecture will discuss Postmodernism’s emergence from a rejection of two important areas of thought, Modernism and Structuralism. Along with Modernism, Postmodernists thoroughly eschewed its precursor, the 18th Century European Enlightenment and its humanist project. We shall also glance at the second philosophy rejected by Postmodernism, that of Structuralism, and Structuralism’s origin from semiotics. We shall learn how Postmodernism, engaging in an extended critique of both theories, evolved into a theory-driven discipline of its own, and what those tenets were vis-à-vis Modernism and Structuralism.
Then we shall glance at some of the ideas of several of the most important proponents of Postmodernism, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, as well as the strange case of the Deconstructionist professor, Paul de Man. Then I plan to engage in a critique of Postmodernism, including some details of a famous intellectual spoof committed on it by one of its most tenacious opponents. We shall conclude with a brief affirmation of the life stance embraced by most of the secular community, Humanism.
The roots of Structuralism lay in the semiotic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Saussure pondered language and concluded that its vital component was the sign. He stated that the sign consisted of (1) an audio-visual component that he called the signifier, say cat, and a conceptual component, the signified, which is our idea of what a cat is. Both components make up the sign, cat. Saussure believed language could be studied as a system of “signs”, as he maintained, “that express ideas,” or signifieds, (concepts) that through differing signs expressed meaning. He believed the present laws of operation were all that were needed to understand language, rather than language’s history.
Saussure came up with two important ideas. The first was that the linguistic sign was an arbitrary cultural designation, that there was no natural link between signifier and signified. His second realization was that the sign, cat, operated by its difference from other signs, like mat, rat, sat and so on. He concluded, therefore, that “in language, there are only differences without positive terms.”
From the concepts of semiotics came the practice of Structuralism.
Best and Kellner state that “structural analysis focused on the underlying rules which organized phenomena into a social system, analyzing such things as totemic practices in terms of divisions between the sacred and profane in traditional societies, or cuisines in modern societies in terms of their culinary rules. The Structuralists believed that the structures, or systems of thought, such as psychoanalysis, anthropology, mythology, kinship systems and so on, were governed by unconscious codes or rules, and that such codes were the underpinning of each thought system.” Here is Roland Barthes’ explanation: “The aim of all Structuralist activity, in fields of both thought and poetry, is to reconstitute an object, and by this process, to make known the rules of functioning, or functions of this object.” Structuralists believed that in this manner, the invisible framework of the various systems of thought would emerge, or be brought out. So they analyzed the rules that made up the organization of such things as totemic practices, cuisine, psychology and so on.
One can discern that Structuralism was a rejection of Humanism, the stance that had previously been all important in the social and human sciences. (For a discussion of Humanism and its tenets, please see “Atheist Philosophy- Humanism” at AtheistScholar.org.) Structuralism’s aims were objectivity, coherence, rigor, truth, and, states Kellner: “… it claimed scientific status for its theories.” Its practitioners wanted to purge theory from its subjective valuations. The subject, or person, or human, was dismissed, or decentered, because the self and the subject were seen to be constituted by their dependence on language. Because of this dependence it was understood that the self and the subject were linguistic and social constructs.
Kellner explains: “The parole, or particular uses of language by individual subjects, was determined by langue, the system of language itself. The self had no existence outside of social and linguistic constructions of it.”
Before I move on to Modernism and Postmodernism’s rejection of it, I would like to speak for a few moments about Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) an important French neo-Freudian, whose psychoanalytic theory was based on Structuralism. His famous essay, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” 1949, describes how we attain a false sense of self-identity by our identification with images and reflections. Lacan stated that around six months to eighteen months old, the child sees its own behavior and self reflected in other older children, adults and mirrors. At that stage, the child is uncoordinated, but when seeing itself outside of itself, it misrecognizes itself as fully coordinated or soon to be unified. Lacan believed that it was during this stage that the ego is formed.
He explained that our sense of self is bound up with exterior images, not from within. He believed that we have alienation and division built into our images all our lives. Lacan stated that we are in a constant and futile state of desire for some mythical inner unity and stability that will give us a sense of being whole. That sense of wholeness, he explained, was never true and people should abandon the search for the illusion of wholeness. His theories were consequential for both Structuralism and Postmodernism.
Modernism was another dominant practice before Postmodernism displaced it. Many of its ideals came from the European 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment.
Modernism placed emphasis on arriving at absolute knowledge in science, technology, society and politics, or at the very least, it cherished the certainty that absolute knowledge could eventually be attained. Additionally, Modernism was associated with belief in progress, optimism and rationality.
Such values are often considered Enlightenment ideals (Please see “An Atheist Perspective on the Enlightenment” at AtheistScholar.org.) The concepts of progress, optimism and rationality are considered foundational for the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, and were a significant influence on Western thought. Western thinkers are still debating and coming to terms with Modernism’s ideals, from our concepts of art, architecture, literature, and music, to the philosophic questions about the nature of man and the debate over the most suitable form of government. Modernism’s tenets are consequential when we examine our belief in forms of ethics and morality and our choices between them. Enlightenment ideals are the bedrock of Western thought.
The firm belief in progress was upheld by the trust that gradual perfection would come about by people increasing in self knowledge and by the adoption of a rigorous intellectual method. Kant, Voltaire and Hegel each subscribed to such thinking. As Glenn Ward maintains, the denouement to such concepts was an investment in universal human rights that ultimately led up to the French Revolution and the United States Declaration of Human Rights. But there was a downside to such a glorification of Western man. Western thinkers became so sure that Western values were superior that Europe began to be considered the most civilized and enlightened part of the world. Such notions of superiority led to the more noxious ambition to better, exploit or colonize cultures considered inferior.
The backlash from such beliefs and the actions they gave rise to is being felt with a vengeance in the West in the present day, from terrorism by those who believe they were exploited, to issues of immigration and assimilation of large numbers of people from what are considered inferior cultures.
Postmodernism wanted to shake off the shackles of the Enlightenment project. Its proponents did not believe in a rationalist, progressive future for mankind. They pointed out that the Enlightenment’s dark face was that of oppression. But Postmodernists also claimed, with justification, that the Enlightenment had produced several disciplinary institutions, such as prisons, madhouses, and large schools. They accused it, as well, of creating discourses, vocabulary and practices that legitimized its domination and control over citizens. Despite such glaring errors, many important philosophers, such as the German thinker, Habermas, continue to invest in the belief that Modernism has unfulfilled potential and he argues further that it has the “resources to overcome its limitations and destructive effects.”
Postmodernists would have none of such defenses of Modernism, rationality, and notions of progress. They held that new developments such as computers, information technology and media were giving rise to new social formations. They believed that the spread of capitalistic penetration and global homogenization and new forms of knowledge demanded new concepts and theories. Postmodernists stated that those processes were giving rise to increased cultural fragmentation, changes in the experience of space and time, and according to Ward, new modes of experience, subjectivity and cultures.
The criticism of Postmodernism is concerned with its alleged exhaustion, pessimism, irrationality, and particularly its disillusionment with the idea of absolute knowledge.
Postmodernism also rejects the concept of the undivided self. Most Postmodernists did not embrace the notion of the self, except as a vague, shifting consciousness constructed by the exigencies of language and cultural demands. We shall see what different theorists who addressed the issue of the self believed about the topic. I have already mentioned the word, subject, and I shall be using it during this lecture. It simply means person, or human being. Some Postmodernists believed the subject, or the self, was determined and incapable of emergence from cultural impact, but others saw escapes from the all encompassing exigencies of capitalist society’s domination. We shall glance at their thinking in a few minutes.
Postmodernism believed in fluidity, not only of the self, but of its philosophy as well. Against the high Modernist value system, Postmodernist art, writing and thinking is replete with a new insouciance, playfulness and eclecticism. Postmodernism excels in new forms, pastiche, quotation, playing with past forms, irony, cynicism, commercialism, and as we shall see, outspoken nihilism. Even though Postmodernism engages in a significant cultural critique, it often co-exists happily with a pluralism of styles and games, according to Douglas Kellner. It also tends toward populism as opposed to Modernism’s elitism.
Rejecting Modernist highbrow and elitist art, Postmodernism’s writing and theory, as well as its art and music forms, attempted to do away with the old-fashioned narrative control of the author or thinker. Its project was to replace it with an exaggerated reader response, viewer response, or listener response. In music, this practice often resulted in almost no sound, or disjointed sounds made with various substitutes for traditional instruments, such as hammers, and so on.
There was a repetitive motif, which can be heard in the music of the popular Phillip Glass. Other Postmodern composers were John Adams, William Bolcolm and Elliot Carter.
The attempts were a break from, but in some way similar to the practices of High Modernism. Postmodernism carried the revolution further, however. In writing, many Postmodernists tried to break the narrative completely, using words that deliberately had no relation to each other. Its practitioners used strategies such as bricolage, polystylism and randomness.
Many Postmodernists and their proponents have considered art, music and literature as an attitude, rather than one style. Here are some of its elements, as located by Jonathan Kramer, in a discussion about Postmodern music. It challenges barriers between high and low (symphony orchestras now play with rock musicians, for example), shows disdain for structural unity, questions the exclusivity of elitist values, avoids totalizing forms, does not like a formal mold, and quotes from music, art and literature of all ages and from all cultures. Additionally, it has multiple meanings, and locates meaning in hearers and readers more than in scores and narrative, or performances or readings by composers, writers and artists. I have included other arts along with music, because I believe that Kramer’s list of elements may be found in many aspects of Postmodern art, literature, architecture and film.
There are other characteristics shared by Postmodern arts. Some of the most important are bricolage (using what is at hand, in other words, found objects), polystylism, using elements from many styles and eras, and randomness. Randomness leaves some element of the composition up to chance or a choice of the performers of the piece.
In art, as I mentioned, many of the same elements and methods are applied as in music. Performance art, art assemblages, and digital art installations are popular with Postmodern artists. Conceptual art was central to the Postmodern scene in the 1970’s, and was a deconstruction of a work of art. Barbara Kruger, Sol LeWitt and Jenny Holzer are well known practitioners of this style that often consists of an image and words, or simply words, such as “Born to Shop,” and “Protect Me from the Things I want.” Most of their work is critical of contemporary cultural constructs, such as capitalism and questions received ideas both in the world of the arts and in the greater society.
Literature of the Postmodern era is also caught up with collage, pastiche, and broken narratives. Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961,), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969) are classical pieces of Postmodernist literature. Postmodern writers were very much in tune with Deconstruction theory and with reader response theories that prioritized readers’ responses more than the writers’ intent and authority. Here are just a few of the strategies employed by Postmodern authors- irony, paranoia, parodies of older styles, such as neatly wrapped up endings, black humor, time distortions and rejection of realism. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered the quintessential postmodern novel, but James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses, often cited as an example of High Modernism, employed many of the same devices. Such overlapping of literary styles demonstrates that the shift from one school to another is often blurred and indistinct.
Postmodern film is similar to the other Postmodern genres, with its emphasis on the pastiche of many styles, its self-reflexivity, which refers to other films and film styles, rather than to an external reality, and an undoing of the Modernist and classical rules which disallowed mixing high and low. Some examples are Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction, Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, and Christopher Nolan’s 2000 Memento. A few other significant Postmodern directors are Wes Anderson, Charlie Kauffman, the Coen Brothers and Jim Jarmusch.
I have left Postmodern Architecture for last because almost everyone who has visited shopping malls built in the last twenty years has been exposed to the style. Glenn Ward delineates the elements that may be observed in a Postmodern mall. There is a combination of architectural styles from past times, with modern elements mixed with art deco cinema theatres and so on. There is a mix of nationality types, with Italian pizzerias, American-type retro diners, and London pubs. There is play between different surfaces, material and colors, marble effects, mirrors, plastic, wood, chrome and unconcealed girders. There is a high degree of “fake,” and a paucity of real material used. In place of the real, faux marble and flagstone may be discerned and if you tap a column, it is very likely it will be hollow. There is a large amount of referencing, not only to styles of different times and places, but the exterior of the building might also echo the shapes and material of the surrounding area.
Postmodern architecture is a decided rejection of the early Modernist Style of architecture, which has earned criticism from both critics and the public. Many Modernist housing projects, designed by such consummate practitioners as Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, created public buildings for low income families in the middle 1950’s.
The tenants hated the buildings, which were spare and sterile, and frequently vandalized them. Modernist styles had been considered the hopeful future of urban planning. But it never occurred to anyone to consult those who had to live and work in such structures. Postmodern buildings often have exaggerated curves and wavy lines, breaking the old angular pattern of earlier eras. Some important architects of the style are Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry and Charles Jencks.
Since the arts were so imbued with Postmodern thought, I thought it was necessary to glance at the philosophy’s impact on them. But now I shall turn to a discussion of the most important subjects of this lecture- Postmodernism’s cultural and philosophic theories. Postmodern values dominated the critique of culture for a number of years. It had hegemony from the mid 1970’s until its decline in the mid 1990’s. I shall be discussing Postmodernist theory, and pointing out its significant problems and lapses at some length. I would like to say at the outset, that while I reject most Postmodern theory, its practitioners’ insights regarding cultural construction were some of the most sophisticated ideas of the last century. Those ideas remain in the moderate adaptations of them that have been adopted by many disciplines. I am decidedly in favor of that adoption.
The two most important aspects of Postmodern culture and philosophy are its rejection of Humanist, Enlightenment values and its definitive repudiation of Meta narratives. Postmodern theorists declared that concepts like justice, law, truth, and especially science were nothing more than cultural constructions. Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guatari were some of the most important philosophers of the theory and we shall see how its tenets played out in their writings.
I am unable, in the time allotted for this lecture, to discuss in depth the philosophy of each of these thinkers who were the giants of Postmodernism. The talk will attempt to locate their ideas vis-à-vis issues relevant to atheism. Please keep in mind that the theories of the Postmodern thinkers were very complex and the language they adopted was poetic, jargon ridden and very difficult to understand. I have tried to simplify their thoughts so that we might gain some understanding of their insights and their errors. For more analysis of Postmodernism and its theorists, please see the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture at AtheistScholar.org. The presentation I am providing will make clear the relationship of Postmodern philosophy to science, rationality and Humanism, and explain why its tenets fail the secular community.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was most interested in writing, reading and the assumptions made about those disciplines. He stated that the belief that things are meaningful before we give words to them was a mistake. He called this error “the metaphysics of presence.” For example, he explained that we assume things exist outside the text, so we are led to ask what Postmodernism is, rather than what the word, “Postmodernism,” does. Although Postmodernism did not deny there was an external reality, thinkers like Derrida came dangerously close to denying there was anything the human mind could grasp that was outside the text. Words were the touchstone by which reality was grasped by humans, according to Derrida, and since meaning is always just out of reach, definite conclusions about reality were difficult, perhaps impossible to reach. Texts are made up of words and words refer to other words. Texts refer to other texts and there are many ways to approach and critique texts.
Derrida believed that both speech and writing are texts that are characterized by difference, or “differance.” If you look up a word in the dictionary, you are frequently led to more words, so meaning is always deferred. Words, he said, or signs contain traces of each other and really have no essential meaning of their own. Derrida’s ideas took fire in America, and are known as Deconstruction. This mode of criticism achieved hegemony in academe, particularly in the humanities, until about the mid 1990’s. It is a very complex theory, but I will undertake a simplified version.
Derrida believed all Western thought, including its texts, was based on the concept of a center. Jim Powell states that some examples of centers are a Truth Center, an Ideal Form Center, a Fixed Point Center, and an immovable mover, or a god Center. Centers exclude. The concept of Christianity and Christ was once at the center of Western culture, and other beliefs and non-beliefs were marginalized, ignored or repressed. The same happens in male-dominated societies, whose women are marginalized. Human longing for a center forms binary opposites, with the center marginalizing the opposite or the opposition. Centers have a tendency to become frozen and binary opposites need free play to avoid ossification.
Derrida pointed out the instability of texts and of meaning. But if meaning is unstable it can be discerned that humans, who invented language and meaning, are unstable, too. A kind of schizophrenia afflicts Postmodern society, according to Derrida. But this Postmodern belief in human instability does not provide a firm foundation for political action or seeking social justice, and unfortunately does not suggest solutions to the dilemma. That is a major flaw of most of its thought.
Derrida was arguably the most important proponent of Deconstruction theory. But during the last ten years of his life, one may observe in Derrida’s work a tendency to affirm some sort of transcendent Other. He was influenced by the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, (1906-1995), who believed that the other is one’s brother and who advocated the adoption of ethics in the face of uncertainty. In Derrida’s defense, even though he was preoccupied by religion, it was the negative kind so popular with many contemporary theologians. Negative religion does not speak about god except to state that such a vast unknowable cannot be spoken of in comprehensible terms. Postmodernism, with its denial of reality, often lacks coherent critiquing of religion. Religious advocates, deliberately misunderstanding Derrida’s writing, gloated that the philosopher who had abjured transcendent others had embraced religion.
Deleuze and Guattari
This brings the lecture to Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (1930-1992), who believed that Western culture is given up to what they called, arborescence. The term is the concept of a tree-like structure, with branches sprouting out from it. They thought this dominant paradigm stemmed from Plato’s notion of Ideal Forms, where the form of say, an ideal dog, which existed somewhere (not on earth) contained the essence of dogginess. The branches in such a concept of ideal form would consist of spaniels, collies, poodles, and so on.
Instead of the tree concept that dominated Western culture, Deleuze and Guattari prescribed a free play of forms, interconnectedness, and an unstrained flowing back and forth, called the rhizome. The rhizome has surface connections and lines of flight, in other words, no real end. Both men thought that trying to repress or cure schizophrenia was a form of social control.
They wrote extensively about capitalist society’s attempt to channel desire into organized social codes, such as consumerism, finance, the law, psychiatry, the nuclear family unit, social class and conventional gender roles. They charged that capitalism was trying to control the free play of desire. But, they stated, capitalism subverts itself, by releasing desire in many directions. In order to keep consumerism active, it must invent new territories for desire. They argued that as commodities multiply, there are more things to desire, more images to identify with, and more lines of escape.
Both Deleuze and Guattari believed that a kind of schizophrenic approach to living, a destabilized ebb and flow of being, was a way out of the deterministic strictures of Western society. They were two of the few Postmodernists who did not believe there was no longer any escape for the constructed self, made up of the strictures of capitalism, religion and so on. They warned, however, that one must not allow oneself to fall into a schizophrenic condition, or psychosis, because then one’s control is lost and the play of desire is blocked. The problem with their theory is that they were unable to provide any prescription for the type of life stance they were advocating.
Critics have pointed out that the shattering of the self is experienced by many troubled people in the present day as a painful, rather than as an exalted state. The tendency of many Postmodern thinkers to romanticize the emotionally disturbed as subversive rather than troubled, was sometimes taken to absurd lengths. Some of the prescriptions of Postmodern thought can leave people who embrace them deprived of a solid foundation that helps them manage and control their lives.
Postmodernism never came to terms with the fact that many people have difficulty functioning without social codes and structures. James M. Glass’s Shattered Selves, 1996, is an excellent critique of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposed mode of escape from the strictures of monolithic capitalism.
The next important theorist is Michel Foucault (1926-1984) a personal favorite of mine. He used the term, discourse, very frequently in his writing. Discourse, in the sense that Foucault used it, was the entire practice of an institution or discipline. So, let us imagine the prison system’s discourse, made up of three elements. These elements are the prison system’s language use, or particular vocabulary, the institution of the prison system itself, and finally, the entire discipline together with the vocabulary and the institution. Discourses produce knowledge- in the case of prisons, the means and type of incarceration, who criminals are and what motivates them and so on. Those who are in control of each discourse are the experts that determine what that knowledge is.
The old expression “knowledge is power” has been given more depth with Foucault’s examination. The production of knowledge is a very powerful tool. Those who control the discourse of each institution- universities, medical associations, mental health systems- also control the power to create the vocabularies and the definitions, as well as the rules. The experts classify and decide. It is they who determine what are legitimate and illegitimate statements. They keep people in check, prevent so-called deviants from upsetting the norms of society and regulate people to become useful members of society. Psychology is a particularly important discourse for both enforcing and deciding on what the norms of society are.
Foucault believed the idea of the subject, or man, was an invention, a construction that was invented around the time of the Renaissance. He stated that the idea, or rather, the social construction of man, was dying out, and there might eventually come the emergence of another type of consciousness.
Foucault’s four volume work on sex, History of Sexuality, (1980-1986), was intriguing and thoughtful. He dismissed the notion that sex was repressed in Western society. Rather, he pointed out how people in the West talk about sex incessantly. Psychology talks about sex, as do the patients of psychology. There are surveys released on sex, relentless media coverage and discussion of sex crimes, sexologists, promotion of safe sex, birth control and abstinence debates, abortion arguments and discussions, talk about sexual hang-ups, jokes, advice on looking and being perceived as sexy and other incessant attention. He did not believe such open attention signified healthy behavior. He thought that the intense societal focus invents various categories of sexual formation and behavior and that sex is used as one more control. People, he argued, no longer enjoy their pleasure; they are categorized into types and into problems. Sexual pleasures are now understood by how much they deviate from the norm, which despite changes in attitudes toward same sex relationships, remains heterosexual sex.
Foucault believed there was no one monolithic power, but micro powers like the system of mental health and other institutions that controlled discourse. He did not argue that the various forms of power ended in complete domination, because he believed that where there is power, there is also resistance. He found there were places where people could resist.
It is difficult to know how concrete resistance might take place because of Foucault’s reluctance to locate more monolithic power points.But his work was some of the most interesting and practical among the Postmodernists.
Jean Baudrillard (1929- 2007) was one of Postmodernism’s most influential thinkers. It was he who discussed the idea, some of it borrowed from other thinkers, of the image, or spectacle, that now dominated the Postmodern world and took the place of reality. According to Jim Powell, Derrida claimed that signs and images no longer bear any relation to the real world, but create their own hyperreality- an order of representation that is not the unreal, but that has replaced reality and is more than real. A good example is the Disneyland amusement parks. Baudrillard claimed that the parks are presented as imaginary in an attempt to make people believe the rest of America is real. But, he insisted, it is not- it is pure simulacrum. A simulacrum bears no relation to reality at all.
He called the present state of affairs “the death of the real,” and claimed that is why we have invented myths of origin. He also thought that Western societies take up “show scandals”, both political and sexual, in order to pretend such affronts are deviations from the norm, and proof that our governments and citizenry respect law, order and morality. But he maintained that the so-called shocking scandals are fakes.
Baudrillard believed life had become TV and media, and that TV and media had become life. He thought that people had blended with television and media. He argued that what was previously a society had “imploded” into a hyper conformist body, obsessed so much with spectacle that it would rather watch TV than take political action.
He thought that the citizenry of the Western world, which has been studied, polled, tested and hyped by media and sociology, had become passive and bored. He stated that it was not only passive and resistant, but more demanding of extreme events, such as more moon shots, rock spectaculars, and mass entertainments of all sorts. But at the same time, the public was skeptical and suspicious. He thought it was quite possible that the citizenry had realized that any attempt to change the system would be co-opted by the system for its own ends. He maintained that Americans have become particularly afflicted with this insidious passivity.
Baudrillard’s interesting but deterministic view finally came close to a sort of fashionable nihilism. His tongue-in-cheek pronouncements, such as the title of his 1991 book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, outraged many people. He never meant to deny that the death and destruction of that war ever happened, but instead he was attempting to point out that it had become a media spectacle. However, his superior attitude seemed to ignore the real tragedy and suffering of the people who were bombed and killed, and others who were displaced. There appears to be very little room in his thought concerning those people in the world who are underprivileged, displaced, and in pain. There is never anything unreal about human suffering.
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924- 1928) was the thinker who became internationally famous for his seminal 1979 volume, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Quebec, Canada’s government commissioned it, and the book surveyed the state of technology and science, both its present and its future. Lyotard made many intelligent predictions about a future given over to technology, when information would not depend on people but computers.
He stated that people, businesses and governments would try to steal information, and high prices would be paid for it. He thought governments might go to war to obtain it.
But ultimately the book turned to science, specifically how science and the scientific method legitimize themselves. Lyotard argued that science is different from other narratives because science statements must prove themselves, unlike say, mythology, legend and philosophy. The principle of proving scientific statements has been known as the law of verification, and in the 20th Century, the rule of falsification. But Lyotard argued that science is unable to legitimize itself, in other words it cannot answer why society should find it necessary or even why there should be scientific activity at all. So, Lyotard concluded, science turned to narrative, relying on the narrative of the European Enlightenment, and on the German Meta narrative of striving for the one great knowledge. Both narratives were supposed to be contributions to the freedom and well-being of people. Lyotard maintained that science unfortunately came up with paradoxes, such as the quantum vagaries of the electron. Science, he said, could no longer play the savior of the human race, so it fell back on touting its performativity, which was discovering what kind of research works best.
Lyotard argued that after World War II, which ended in 1945, people no longer believed in the two Meta narratives of the Enlightenment and the notion of one complete knowledge. In fact, he maintained that now they believe in micro narratives. No micro narrative is able to dominate the rest or explain the rest. Lyotard readily admitted that his theory was a Meta narrative of its own. However, some of his thinking had egregious results.
The religious fundamentalists of the present day use Lyotard’s work, along with similar Postmodern statements, to maintain that the evolutionary theory of Darwin is merely a scientific narrative. They embrace the notion that evolution does not have superior validity over creationism. (Please see “Evolution vs Creationism” and “Intelligent Design” at AtheistScholar.org for an extended discussion of creationist attempts to have their pseudo theory recognized as equal to evolutionary theory. Their goal is to have creationism taught in the United States public school system.)
Thinkers like Lyotard are partially responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs. The children of America need scientific knowledge desperately, if the United States is to continue to maintain its hegemony in the world. Science has a narrative, to be sure, but it is a narrative that corrects itself when faced with undeniable facts. It is always in process, rather than stasis. Lyotard had a biased and incorrect understanding of what science does and how it proceeds. I shall be discussing Postmodernism’s reprehensible stance against science later in the lecture.
One of the last of the most important Postmodern thinkers was the literary theorist and professor, Paul de Man. (1919-1983). He was employed by several different and prestigious American universities during the course of his career and had a solid reputation as a formidable Deconstructionist. He, J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida were the most vocal, the most respected and the most feared proponents of the theory of Deconstruction. I am going to quote Louis Menand’s musings about literature and theory extensively, because I think it will to help us gain an understanding of why the scandal surrounding the late de Man was so demoralizing to those disciplines. “To think about literature is to think theoretically.
If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing, if you have ideas about what’s relevant and what isn’t for understanding it (like which class had ownership of the means of production and whether or not some literature gives you goose bumps) and if you have standards judging whether it’s great or not so great (say a pleasing style or a displeasing politics) then you have a theory of literature. You can’t make sense of it without one.
It’s the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and so disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. It affects the way students will respond to literature the rest of their lives. But it’s also part of the inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.” I believe that Menand’s statement is true with regard to all the arts and to philosophy as well as literature.
But literary theory went through a severe crisis about twenty-five years ago, and while it surely would have occurred without Paul de Man, he became the notorious symbol of what people disliked or feared about Deconstruction theory. For those who are interested in the full description of the Paul de Man scandal, please see Evelyn Barish’s biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man, 2013, which, while containing some historical errors, is an excellent examination of his life and misdeeds.
The proponents of Deconstruction presided over literature departments, particularly in France and the United States, because these professors were considered to be the top thinkers in their profession. The New York Times covered their books and lectures, as did other important publications.
Their books and papers were extensively reviewed, as Deconstruction was considered an essential part of Postmodernism. The Deconstructionists gained a great deal of attention because new claims were being made- not just about language and philosophy, but as we have seen, about knowledge itself.
Paul de Man (1919 – 1983) arrived in the United States in 1948 from Belgium. He gave the impression, and it was assumed by those who knew him, that he had suffered many reversals in Belgium because he had been against the Nazi regime during World War II. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Three years after de Man’s death, a Belgian graduate student poking in that nation’s archives found some early work by de Man. This discovery not only proved that de Man had written some two hundred articles for important newspapers controlled by the Nazis, such as Le Soir, but also revealed that he was a decided Fascist. He had praised the Nazis, savaged Jewish intellectuals and triumphantly declared there was a New Order in Europe. The student informed former students of Paul de Man and the story quickly spread. Eventually, a carefully edited, two volume work was published with the full texts of de Man’s articles. But the seedy revelations had already leaked out. Irreparable damage had been done to literary theory, to Deconstruction as a theory and to De Man’s reputation.
The full truth slowly emerged; he was also a bigamist, who for years did not acknowledge his first family or give much support to his children. He had been fired from Le Soir for overreaching, had opened a new publishing house in 1946 and used the money he obtained from his private investors for his personal cash. Many lost their life savings, including his former nanny. He fled to the United States to avoid prosecution. He was convicted in absentia in Belgian and sentenced to five years in prison. His father never spoke to him again.
De Man then cleverly doctored his degree to get into the PhD program at Harvard and eventually obtained a job at Cornell University.
In 1966, having attained a solid reputation in academe, he met Jacques Derrida at a Johns Hopkins symposium. Eventually he and Derrida became close friends and collaborators. They both admired Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher. (Please see “Atheist Philosophy- Existentialism” for a more developed discussion of Heidegger’s philosophy at AtheistScholar.org.) Heidegger had been an active and dedicated Nazi, but he was considered a “giant” of philosophy by many intellectuals. De Man, Derrida and Miller, by then at Yale, became known as ‘The Yale School of Criticism,’ and they were the face of theory when interest in it was at its height. Derrida, Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, all proponents of Deconstruction and friends of Paul de Man, were Jews. But when the truth about him surfaced, some of them tried to defend de Man. Derrida made a rhetorical connection between the attacks made on de Man with the extermination of the Jews. His defense only served to discredit Deconstruction’s reputation more than de Man’s past work had. Academe had tired of Deconstruction and theory was over.
The brief description I have provided about the most serious of de Man’s misdeeds does not go into his additonal deceptions and malfeasances. The list is too long. He might have been a sociopath; he was surely a man without a normal super ego. The nihilism we have seen in Postmodern thinkers like Baudrillard was exemplified by de Man. Hartman had earlier written about him that “…he is a connoisseur of nothingness.” Indeed he was. It is easy to conclude that he could do what he did and write as he did because in the end, at the bottom of all the many veneers he assumed, de Man believed in just that- nothing.
It is important to keep in mind that most Postmodern thinkers were against Humanism and all Meta narratives. But while they saved their most serious vitriol for what they called the Meta narrative of science, most of them bypassed critiquing the Meta narrative of religion. They were indulgent toward religion, and their indulgence was at least partly due to their own stance against reality. Perhaps they did not consider religion an adequate target. Since science had achieved some hegemony over religion by the mid 1970’s, did they see science as the most powerful Meta narrative to attack? Were they envious that science had serious evidence to back up its claims, while theorists and philosophers did not?
Be that as it may, we have seen Derrida turn to a kind of negative religion which preoccupied his thinking for the last ten years of his life. De Man began his university studies with religious mysticism, before changing to science. Julie Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, two important Postmodern thinkers and feminists, stated that women should take up the idea of a female god. The scrutiny that Postmodern theorists directed against knowledge claims seems to be contradicted by such statements. Did they forget or ignore the fact that the majority of religious believers insist that they know their beliefs are founded on certainties? Believers claim their knowledge has come from god or from people inspired by him. Why did Postmodernists appear tolerant of such incoherent knowledge claims? In addition, many Postmodernists did not critique the idea of god. Yet the notion of a transcendent other is the ultimate false Meta narrative. Why then, since Postmodernists claimed to wage war on all Meta narratives, were they so gentle toward the most pernicious one of all- religion?
The attack on science by some of the Postmodernists was reprehensible and has had some unfortunate repercussions. I mentioned earlier the use creationists in the present day have made of the Postmodernist criticism of science. Lyotard most likely used some of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when he formulated his thinking about science as narrative, but Kuhn’s later career was spent as an opponent of attacks on science. His book was an examination into how new paradigms in science replace older ones; it was not an attack on the discipline itself. (Please see an Atheist Perspective on the War between Science and Religion, Part 2 at AtheistScholar.org for a critique of Kuhn’s book and thinking.)
Kuhn was a consequential critic of the Strong Program. The Strong Program’s theory was a favorite with Postmodern sociologists; it claimed that science is a discourse of power. Some Postmodernists tried to argue that accepted scientific accounts had authority, not because they were the best arguments, but because they had the most powerful backers. Bill Cooke states: “It is one thing to recognize that science develops within a social context, and quite another thing to then conclude that this social setting determines the results of the science. This arises principally from a confusion between knowledge and belief.”
The Postmodern critiques of science include claims that are really minor points which virtually no one disputes. Politics, personalities and social conditions do play a part in the life of science. No discipline exists in a social void, but such an observation is a truism. What is a much more egregious claim of some Postmodernists with regard to science is that social interests help determine scientific outcomes.
There are instance, of course, of fraud, when some scientists “cook” the results of their research to favor the institutions funding it, or from other personal motives. However, most science is conducted stringently, according to the true scientific method.
Such critics of science often fall prey to the Passes-For Fallacy. This term originated with Susan Haack, the author of the 2003 volume, Defending Science-Within Reason. Haack is a philosopher-scientist. She has exposed the fallacious thinking of Postmodernists and other critics of science. Here is a short description of her theory:
Religious and other critics of science often begin by saying that many scientific theories have passed for truth but have turned out to be false. The supposed facts underlying such theories, they claim, have passed for true but only seemed to be rather than actually being true. Their claim about truth and science is, of course, a truism. It is a valid premise, if left at that. But then, such persons make a leap of non-logic to a wholly invalid conclusion that, because facts in some scientific examples proved not to be true, all notions of facts, sound evidence and honest inquiring are specious and fallacious. The claim they are leveling against the scientific method is nonsense.
But Haack goes further into the non-logic of the Passes-For fallacy. She argues that “not only does the conclusion not follow from the premise, if the conclusion were true, the premise could not be true either, thus becoming self-defeating.” This is the marked logical weakness of the Passes-For fallacy, which some Postmodernists, religious advocates and others who see science as an enemy, choose to ignore.
I shall return shortly to Postmodernism vis-à-vis science, but I would like to segue briefly to other weaknesses of the theory.
Douglas Kellner has put together a number of very salient critiques of Postmodern thought, and it is with grateful dependence on his work that I shall commence detailing a few of the many shortcomings of Postmodern thinking.
Kellner points out that many Postmodern theories are vitiated by their inability to clearly differentiate between Postmodernism and Modernism and to articulate the rupture in history and society that produces the Postmodern condition. It has already been pointed out that those putative new theorists had merely embraced new totalizing concepts to supplant the old Meta narratives, and the substitute theories are too abstract, too simplistic and overly general. They need to be replaced by social theories that are more complex and multidimensional.
Postmodernists were too ready to replace or throw out concepts of Grand Narratives, such as truth, subjectivity, representation and so on, when what we really need is to reconstruct them. We can take Postmodern critiques into account, but we shall not be able to practice social theory at all by throwing the older thinking completely out. Additionally, there is difficulty with Postmodern theory because it tried to discard not only ideas of reference and representation, but reality. Nevertheless Postmodern thinkers continued to claim access to social reality, which they maintained was their “ground of reference.” There is a lack of coherence in many of the statements Postmodern thinkers made about reality.
Baudrillard negated the concept of reality and representation in contemporary society, then turned around and referenced “the real” when he wrote about theory. Lyotard seemed to take his prohibitions against totalizing narratives seriously, but as noted earlier, ended by producing his own.
In fact, his celebration of protean social and cultural conditions reproduced what he termed was the fragmenting of capitalism. But by refusing to privilege specific discourses, he moved in the direction of precluding the development of social theory.
Kellner goes on to point out that Postmodernism attacks rationality, and after criticizing subjectivity, calls for new forms of subjectivity. Foucault alone, prior to his untimely death, called for a reassessment and qualified return to the Enlightenment Project and to rationality. He was a principled thinker who was always willing to correct his errors.
But I would now like to return to the subject of Postmodernism and science. For some odd reason, most likely a mix of arrogance, misunderstanding and envy, many well-known Postmodern theorists were prone to cite science in an attempt to bolster their ideas. Needless to say this application of scientific theorems and formulas to social concepts produced howlers of the most embarrassing kind.
Not only was the Paul de Mann scandal a major source of damage to Postmodernism, especially Deconstruction, but in 1989, an intellectual hoax made the philosophy the object of derision and amusement. A physics professor at New York University, Alan Sokal, submitted a paper to Social Text, arguably the most important and prestigious Postmodern journal. Here is the sublimely complex title of his article: “Transgressing the Boundaries Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The title alone is a work of sly genius on Sokal’s part. His article purportedly demonstrated that the laws of science are nothing more than social constructs. As we have seen, statements such as that had become orthodoxy in Postmodern thought.
Sokal then proposed a new type or model of quantum gravity, more in line with feminism, post-colonialism and relativism. He knew the editors of Social Text favored such ideas.
When the editors of Social Text perused the article, they became so enthused about its claims that they decided to print it. They did not involve any other academics or specialists to fact check the paper and try to locate errors. The article was included in the Spring Issue of the journal. But Sokal, in a spirit of incredible mischief, had made arrangements with another important academic publication, Lingua Franca. On the same day his article appeared in Social Text, a letter from Sokal appeared in Lingua Franca. He exposed the entire article he had written as a hoax. He explained that every word he had written about the social relativity of science was complete rubbish. Even worse, Sokal announced that he had deliberately included several scientific errors in the article, which had gone unnoticed and uncorrected by Social Text. His hoax was most likely precipitated by disgust with Postmodern theorists who overreached with regard to their knowledge of science.
The reason egregious errors had been committed which had allowed Sokal’s hoax to slip through, was in keeping with Postmodernist scorn for the old fashioned academic process of verification and the search for truth. Postmodern theorists believed such practices were unnecessary, because they were nothing but the culturally constructed narratives of Late Capitalism. But Sokal’s faux article demonstrated that when such precautions were abandoned, matters could go horribly wrong. Bill Cooke states that the editors of Social Text reacted with dripping venom, resorting to personal attacks and smears. The entire Postmodern Project was grievously undermined.
The Sokal Hoax and Paul de Man scandal seriously damaged Postmodern claims of academic credibility, and not credibility alone, but Postmodern hegemony.
Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont went on to publish a book in 1997 and 1998 called: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. The authors attacked the incompetent and pretentious use of scientific concepts by intellectuals with no background or serious reading in science. In the book, the two scientists tried to derail the claims of Postmodern practitioners that modern science was nothing more than a myth, a socially constructed paradigm.
Sokal and Bricmont charged Postmodern writers with using scientific terminology without understanding what it meant, with importing concepts from the natural sciences into social science and the humanities without any comprehensible reason other than pretentiousness, and with throwing around technical terms to impress and intimidate others who did not clearly understand their meanings. In short, Sokal and Bricmont charged many Postmodern intellectuals with exploiting science to lend their theories a veneer of rigor which in reality, they lacked. Here is a quotation from the book about some intellectuals’ deceptive stratagems. The authors charged Postmodern thinkers with: “…using a group of intellectual practices that can be described as mystifications, deliberately obscure language, confused thinking and the misuse of scientific concepts.”
Let me provide a few amusing examples. Luce Irigiray insisted that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over the speeds that are vitally necessary to us.” Lacan, the psychoanalyst, drew an analogy between topology and mental illness that in the authors’ view was not only false, “…but gibberish.”
Richard Dawkins, the eminent atheist biologist, reviewed Sokal and Bricmont’s volume. He, too, dismissed Lacan’s incomprehensible statements. He said: “We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us the author of this style is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.”
Lacan wrote a small book called The Triumph of Religion. As an adult, he was not a religious person, but in the volume, he called Roman Catholicism “the one true religion.” Postmodern thinkers adored making jokes when they wrote or spoke, so it is possible that Lacan was not speaking seriously. He went on to say that Roman Catholicism “will continue to excrete meaning to such an extent we will drown in it, thereby extinguishing the need for psychoanalysis.” Does he equate the meanings offered by the Church with excretion? Was he having sarcastic fun? Some critics have taken his remarks seriously but his intent remains ambiguous. He never explained himself.
The Lacan quote is one more example of Postmodernism’s softness toward religion, which is a myth, and its irrational attack on science, which is a discipline based on sound evidence. Humanism, unjustly attacked and discarded by Postmodernism, is alive and well, as is science, while Postmodernism has all but passed away. My opinion is that it earned its demise. Postmodern theorists arrived at some wonderful breakthroughs regarding how cultural constructions are constituted and how they endure. They should have stopped at that point and enlarged on their significant insights. The public damage they inflicted on science endures in the religious claim that science, including evolution, is only a narrative.
In addition, Postmodern claims about the construction of meaning have been egregiously co-opted by powerful politicians. Demagogues claim they create meaning, that there is no significance or reality but what they decree. Concepts about creating meaning have spread to those who attempt to put them to use in reaching unworthy goals.
Postmodernism’s excesses may be laughable and now seem quaint. But their lamentable borrowings from science, while attacking it at the same time they were borrowing from it, were unconscionable. Their mystical, enigmatic pronouncements did nothing to help clear the mists of superstition and irrationality from the Western mind. Luckily they were exposed by scientists, by rational people, and by secularist skepticism.
I promised to end this lecture with a reaffirmation of Humanism. Here is a statement of the intellectual foundations of Humanism as put forth by Mario Bunge. There are seven of them. “(1) Cosmological- whatever exists is either natural or man-made. (2) Anthropological- common features of humanity are more significant than the differences. (3) Axiological- there are some basic human values, such as well-being, honesty, loyalty, solidarity, fairness, security, peace, and knowledge, and these are worth working, even fighting for. (4) Epistemological- it is possible to find out the truth about the world and ourselves with the help of reason, experience, imagination and criticism. (5) Moral- we seek salvation in this world through work and thought. (6) Social- liberty, equality, solidarity, and expertise should be used in the management of the commonwealth. (7) Political- while allowing freedom of and from religious worship we should work toward the attainment or maintenance of a secular state.” Note how the writer has begun with the natural sciences and ended with the social sciences. There is a term for his procedure.
Bill Cooke calls it “a systemist account of humanism which grounds it in reliable information.” The procedure would have been attacked by Postmodern thinkers, as well the foundational statements about Humanism. But there is coherence and solidity to Humanist beliefs that were significantly absent from many of the concepts put forth by Postmodern gibberish.
We freethinkers, by using our reason and common sense, have not only learned to spurn religion’s mystifications but to also reject statements made by intellectuals without sound evidence to support them. We embrace Humanism, rationality and the secular values passed on to us from the Enlightenment.
I would like to close with these words by Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, whom all of the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put back together again. He seems to be an amusing exemplar of Postmodernism arrogance and obfuscation when he makes this unintentionally ironic statement. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean, rather more or less.” Postmodernism, indeed, has turned out to mean very much less, and like Humpty Dumpty, has suffered a very great fall. Rest in peace, POMO.
Video of Lecture: Postmodernism
Barish, Evelyn. The Double Life of Paul de Man. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: The Guilford Press, 1991.
NOTE: THE ABOVE VOLUME CONTAINS AN EXCELLENT AND COMPREHENSIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY WITH THE MOST CONSEQUENTIAL WRITINGS OF THE POSTMODERNISTS, THEIR PROPONENTS AND THEIR CRITICS.
Cooke, Bill. Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism and Humanism. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006. Bill Cooke’s Dictionary contains excellent short descriptions of many important ideas, as well as biograpies of important people in the areas of disbelief, science, philosophy and so on. He explains, in succinct terms, such references as Sokal Hoax. An invaluable reference work.
Menand, Louis. “The De Man Case.” Review of the Evelyn Barish book, The Double Life of Paul de Man. New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014. The New Yorker, March 24, 2014.
Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador, U.S.A., 1999.
Ward, Glenn. Teach Yourself Postmodernism. Chicago, Illinois: Contemporary Books, 2003.
Note: For beginners wishing to explore Postmodernism more thoroughly, the Ward and the Best & Kellner books are an excellent way to begin.
See also the Bibliography for all the lectures on Philosophy. There are over 76 works listed.