Postmodernism: definition and critique (with a few comments on its relationship with Marxism)

This is from today’s AMA on Reddit:


Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.

That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”

There is no excuse whatsoever for the secondary claim (except that it allows the resentful pathology of Marxism to proceed in a new guise).

The first claim is true, but incomplete. The fact that there are an unspecifiable number of interpretations does not mean (or even imply) that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.

What does valid mean? That’s where an intelligent pragmatism comes into it. Valid at least means: “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” That’s a pragmatic definition of truth (from within the confines of the American pragmatism of William James and C.S. Pierce).

Validity is constrained by the necessity for iteration (among other fators). Your interpretations have to keep you, at minimum, alive and not suffering too badly today, tomorrow, next week, next month and next year in a context defined by you, your family, your community and the broader systems you are part of. That makes for very tight constraints on your perception/interpretations/actions. Games have to be iterable, playable and, perhaps, desirable to the players– as Jean Piaget took pains to point out, in his work on equilibration.



It’s not as if I personally think that postmodernism and Marxism are commensurate. It’s obvious to me that the much-vaunted “skepticism toward grand narratives” that is part and parcel of the postmodern viewpoint makes any such alliance logically impossible. Postmodernists should be as skeptical toward Marxism as toward any other canonical belief system.

So the formal postmodern claim, such as it is, is radical skepticism. But that’s not at all how it has played out in theory or in practice. Derrida and Foucault were, for example, barely repentant Marxists, if repentant at all. They parleyed their 1960’s bourgeoisie vs proletariat rhetoric into the identity politics that has plagued us since the 1970’s. Foucault’s fundamental implicit (and often explicit) claim is that power relations govern society. That’s a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare. Derrida’s hypothetical concern for the marginalized is a version of the same thing. I don’t really care if either of them made the odd statement about disagreeing with the Marxist doctrines: their fundamental claims are still soaked in those patterns of thought.

You can see this playing out in practical terms in fields such as gender studies and social work (as well as literary criticism, anthropology, law, education, etc.).

There are deeper problems as well. For example: Postmodernism leaves its practitioners without an ethic. Action in the world (even perception) is impossible without an ethic, so one has to be at least allowed in through the back door. The fact that such allowance produces a logical contradiction appears to bother the low-rent postmodernists who dominate the social sciences and humanities not at all. Then again, coherence isn’t one of their strong points (and the demand for such coherence can just be read as another patriarchal imposition typifying oppressive Western thought).

So: postmodernism, by its nature (at least with regard to skepticism) cannot ally itself with Marxism. But it does, practically. The dominance of postmodern Marxist rhetoric in the academy (which is a matter of fact, as laid out by the Heterodox Academy, among other sources) attests to that. The fact that such an alliance is illogical cannot be laid at my feet, just because I point out that the alliance exists. I agree that it’s illogical. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

It’s a very crooked game, and those who play it are neck deep in deceit.