Sunday, February 8, 2015

Postmodernism: Its Family Tree and Origins

In my debates with people about Postmodernism, it sometimes strikes me that some people do not even properly understand who is and who is not a Poststructuralist and Postmodernist, or even the basic history of the movement.

So here is a diagram below of the major Poststructuralists and their Postmodernist and deconstructionist offshoots. It needs to be opened in its own window.

Furthermore, people seem to think my hostility to Postmodernism stems from not having read enough Postmodernist writing. On the contrary, I have read a great deal of the Postmodernist literature, not only while a undergraduate university student but also while a postgraduate – and even in later years after I got my degree. I even maintain an interest in the history of the movement, despite my rejection of it.

Let me give an account of Postmodernism’s origins.

Postmodernism is an outgrowth of “Poststructuralism,” an intellectual movement in France from the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a reaction against French Structuralism.

The early and big name Poststructuralists actually began as Structuralists, such as Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and Michel Foucault (1920–1984).

If there was a seminal moment in the origin of the Poststructuralist movement, some people date it to a 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University in which the French intellectuals Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan came to America and announced that they had turned against Structuralism.

Derrida gave a lecture at this conference later published as “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences” (Derrida 1978 [1967]; see also the conference proceedings Macksey and Donato 1972) which marked his break with Structuralism and the general turn towards Poststructuralism.

Roland Barthes’ later essay “The Death of the Author” (Barthes 1967; Barthes 1977) was another influential text of the early movement. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes essentially proclaimed that critics should divorce their study of a text from its author, and that a text is not a product of its author with a definite and fixed meaning intended by the author (see Barthes 1977: 146).

You think I am joking? Let Barthes speak for himself:
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic. …. literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1977: 146).
In other words, let us ignore authors and pretend texts can mean anything. In the process, we can emancipate ourselves from “reason, science, [and] law.”

If this sounds like the infantile ranting, raving and posturing of a frustrated revolutionary and Marxist to you, I think you may well be right. Apparently Barthes was a former Marxist, and a lot of the original Poststructuralists were disillusioned communists, Stalinists and Maoists.

When their revolution of 1968 failed and they became disillusioned with Marxism, the French radical left turned to a type of philosophical and cultural radicalism. Conservative critics of Postmodernism have long suspected this (Scruton 1994a), and frankly I think they may be onto something.

Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” also contains such gems as this:
“The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” (Barthes 1977: 142–143).
Um, no, Mr Barthes, you bloody twit, texts had authors long before modern capitalism, and the ancient Greeks and Romans could attach the “greatest importance” to authors just as we do.

In my view, Barthes’ absurd theory – at the heart of modern Postmodernism – has done great damage to literary criticism. It is plainly wrong.

It allows lazy and ignorant literary criticism in which critics do not properly focus on the historical and cultural context in which a text was written – or on the biography of the author and what he meant to say. Instead, Postmodernism has produced a type of bizarre “literary criticism” in which Postmodernists torture texts to death and extract any and whatever meaning they like – no matter how patently ludicrous or crazy.

But let us move on with the origins of Postmodernism.

Jacques Derrida took Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” fantasies to even greater heights of mind-numbing insanity. Derrida invented the French word “différance” (a word that conveys the ideas of “difference” and “deferral”) to convey the idea that no word can even have a clear, definitive meaning at all: true and fixed meaning is supposed to be “deferred,” indeterminate, and unattainable (Roman 2001: 309; Scruton 1994b: 478).

Derrida also liked to rant about what he called “logocentrism,” the idea that in Western civilisation speech is “privileged” over writing (Roman 2001: 309). The fact that people who were literate were historically a small, privileged and even powerful minority in most Western societies did not seem to daunt or present Derrida with any problems. Nor did the fact that the ability to read the written word and even written works themselves like scriptures have conferred enormous power on priests, monks and clerics in Western civilisation. None of this gave the prize buffoon Derrida any pause.

Derrida’s famous method of Deconstruction is just the culmination of Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” idea. Since no text can have any fixed meaning, we can invent any meaning we like, and “deconstruct” any text by inventing a meaning contrary to what the text says. We can engage in utterly illogical, unfounded and fantastical attempts to show how any sentence actually implies or means the opposite, or nothing at all.

The end result of all this is the view that no real external reality structures, fixes or even circumscribes our words and language, and that no objective truth, knowledge or reality exists (Roman 2001: 310).

The ignorance and intellectual charlatanry of Derrida were revealed to the English-speaking world by the analytic philosopher John Searle, who, in debates in print with Derrida and other Postmodernists, demonstrated that Derrida had a wretched and ignorant understanding of the modern philosophy of language (Derrida 1977a; Searle 1977; Derrida 1977b), and how “deconstruction” results in nothing less than outright intellectual fraud (Searle 1983; Mackey and Searle 1984).

Later in his 2000 interview with Reason magazine, Searle also drew attention to Derrida’s shameful and despicably dishonest tactics in debate:
Reason: You’ve debated Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. Are they making bad arguments, or are they just being misread?

Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, ‘He says so and so,’ he always says, ‘You misunderstood me.’ But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, ‘What the hell do you mean by that?’ And he said, ‘He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, “You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.” That’s the terrorism part.’ And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.”
Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and Roland Barthes’ ideas on literary criticism have flowed into the heart of modern Postmodernism.

There are other strands, of course, and many heresies and mutations. The two most important strands stemming from the original French Poststructuralism are those of Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) and Michel Foucault (1920–1984).

The strand associated with Michel Foucault essentially boils down to the idea that “truth” is whatever those in power determine it to be, and reality a construct of power, so every instance of power is oppression. The other source of modern Postmodernism is the utter pseudo-science of Freudian psychology via Jacques Lacan and his Lacanian psychoanalytic quackery. However, I will leave an analysis of the work of Lacan and Foucault for another time.

The Poststructuralists and their ideas quickly spread to the rest of the Western world, principally via the humanities departments of universities. It has lead to the modern Postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism, deconstruction, intertextuality studies, and postmodern cultural studies you find all over the academy today.

Curiously, the madness in the humanities and social sciences faculties of the academy today is really nothing new. Back in the late 19th century an equally absurd philosophy called Idealism dominated the philosophy departments of English-speaking universities. It was overthrown by analytic philosophy. Now few but historians of philosophy and Western thought have any interest in Idealism, and hopefully in a century hence very few will have any interest in the equally absurd philosophy of Postmodernism.

Barthes, Roland. 1967. “Death of the Author,” Aspen 5/6.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Death of the Author,” Image Music Text (trans. Stephen Heath). Fontana, London. 142–148.

Derrida, Jacques. 1977a. “Signature, Event, Context,” Glyph 1: 172–197.

Derrida, Jacques. 1977b. “Limited Inc.,” Glyph 2: 162–256.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978 [1967]. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass). University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 278–294.

Mackey, Louis H. and John R. Searle. 1984. “An Exchange on Deconstruction,” New York Review of Books 31.1 (February 2): 47–48.

Macksey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). 1972. The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore.

Postrel, Steven R. and Edward Feser. 2000. “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” Reason (February)

Reynolds, Jack. “Jacques Derrida (1930–2004),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Roman, Denise. 2001. “Poststructuralism,” in Victor E. Taylor, and Charles E. Winquist. 2001. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. Routledge, London and New York. 308–310.

Scruton, Roger. 1994a. “Upon Nothing,” Philosophical Investigations 17.3: 481–506.

Scruton, R. 1994b. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. Penguin Books, London.

Searle, John. 1977. “Reiterating the Differences: Reply to Derrida,” Glyph 1: 198–208.

Searle, John. 1983. “The Word Turned Upside Down,” The New York Review of Books (27 October): 74–79.

Taylor, Victor E. and Charles E. Winquist. 2001. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. Routledge, London and New York.


  1. Excellent post and series. For me, the great anti-intellectual "tell" of the post-modernists is the Searle quote. The real purpose of obscurantisme terroriste is the control over any discussion about any subject, and hence political control. This is all quite Orwellian, since any statement will mean what our intellectual vanguard decides it to mean.

    1. Yes, that is a very good point. In fact, some extreme postmodernists and some progressives allied with postmodernism are even prepared to support restrictions on free speech for people they do not like. They often tend to be highly intolerant of people they do not like too.

      People on the left who really value freedom of thought and speech should be deeply opposed to Postmodernism.

    2. Um if you read that carefully you would see that this is actually a Foucault quote.

      But then Foucault is 'bad', right? So, then the quote must be 'absurd', no?

    3. "People on the left who really value freedom of thought and speech should be deeply opposed to Postmodernism."

      Lol. Yes. If we do not oppose the authors listed in the above family tree it is likely that freedom of thought and speech will disappear in the West. Be careful people... reading Lacan or listening to a Zizek lecture will only lead down the path of totalitarianism.

      Have we heard such exaggerated arguments before? Of course we have. From the Austrians and Hayek. Economic planning = totalitarianism. And so on.

      Here's an alternative interpretation: the specter of totalitarianism is the key way in which people seek to stifle debate. If you don't like something and don't want it thought about and discussed just say that it will lead to totalitarianism or the stifling or freedom of speech. Or if you want to push your politics you equate the other side with authoritarians.

      Of course this is an entirely hypocritical stance.

      Here's another hypothesis: the whole controversy surrounding postmodernism was just another symptom of the left's fracturing. Anyone who is actually involved in politics -- many on the 'left' are not, they just comment and read The Guardian -- know that the key problem up until today was infighting. This whole controversy is, perhaps, just another instance of infighting over things that don't really matter. Thankfully these debates were a 90s and early 00s phenomenon. Today people don't care as much. Well, most people anyway...

    4. I will grant you that Foucault's writing is not as bad as Derrida's.

      Nevertheless, Foucault still has the same ridiculous ideas and his theories are fundamentally flawed.

    5. Funny then that they've had so much influence. I assume, as a historian, you know their impact in the history of medicine. Roy Porter's seminal work is thoroughly influenced by Foucault's own provisional excavations. Of course, Porter is not uncritical of Foucault. But we're not fascists, are we? We don't say that no one can criticise anyone else.

      We judge ideas based on what they generate. Not on whether we fully agree with them. Well, that's what a tolerant person would do. Dogmatists would attack them and write Whig histories.

    6. First of all, I would never ban or burn books or stop Postmodernists from speaking and writing books.

      Also, I do not say that the long dead Postmodernists's works will cause "freedom of thought and speech will disappear in the West."

      But what is of concern is that there is is an extreme progressive mindset -- sometimes allied with postmodernism -- that supports things like, e.g., government hate speech laws.

      There are plenty of people on the left who think these are violations of free speech, and a terrible path to take, and they are right. This clearly has some relation to cultural relativism, and that has come out of Postmodernism on the left.

      Some religious extremists could exploit the extreme progressive mindset to impose blasphemy laws.

      E.g., people on the Left in the UK should be very concerned indeed about this:

    7. Oh God... not this rubbish. You've just fallen hook, line and sinker for the biggest non-argument in existence today. But pursue it if you will. And pursue your Glenn Beck-style chalkboard assessments of where the 'dangerous' ideas came from.

      I'll concern myself with actual matters. Like how austerity is giving rise to Nazis and so on. I don't take my political talking point from Rowan Atkinson, thanks.

    8. First, I despise Fox news or right-wing conspiracy theorists.

      Secondly, these ideas do not exclusively come from the extreme progressive mindset, of course.

      They can come from extreme right wing authoritarians, and are more dangerous from that source. They can come from extreme religious fanatics.

      But I think it is extraordinarily naive to think there is not a sector of the Left today that has become intolerant of free speech to some extent. Yes, it is often motivated by good intentions, but that does not excuse it. It is a sector that is influenced by extreme postmodernism and hostility to the best values of the Enlightenment. E.g., such people often think no objective truths exist.

      If you do not believe in objective truth, nothing in Post Keynesian economics can be true. It is self-destructive.

      There is good evidence it has had terrible effects on third world progressive movements:

    9. Right. Well you're pretty much about ten years behind.

      The rest of us on the left are a little beyond whether you can or cannot tell jokes.

      But if that's what your focus is, then please carry on...I suppose that leaves the rest of us to sort out real issues.

      The left was not killed through 'postmodernism'. It was largely killed through lazy, obsequious academics that never got involved politically and instead turned their ire onto infighting. Be careful, LK, its a new generation and you won't get much sympathy from me. Because I know the type.

      Ideology and how to distract people 101. But carry on.

    10. Do you think objective truth exists?

  2. "Now few but historians of philosophy and Western thought have any interest in Idealism..."

    Strange, I seem to remember a fairly substantial current of thought from the 20th century that is effectively idealist called 'existentialism'.

    But I suppose you can now lay out the work of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger and call it all 'absurd'. Bonus points if you point out that Heidegger was a Nazi.

    Also strange that many of the philosophical discussions on this blog center around Kant's 'transcendental idealism'.

    But please carry on attacking all philosophy as 'absurd' that is not analytic philosophy thus proving my original claim: that most analytic philosophers are to philosophy what neoclassical economists are to economics. They lack nuance. Have very set views on how the history of philosophy developed that privileges their own conclusions (Victoria Chick refers to this as 'Whig history'). And they would be more than happy to take every philosophy that is not their own and engage in what effectively would be a book burning of sorts.

    1. Well, I was thinking above of the type of idealism that stems from Hegel and goes to British idealists like Green, Bosanquet, Bradley, and McTaggart. Perhaps with the exception of McTaggart, these idealists were often called "Hegelians".

      Also, I thought Sartre was not an idealist? Maybe I am mistaken.

      Also, to be fair, I think Kant's brand of idealism -- transcendental idealism -- was of a very different sort than Hegel's.

      Hegel actually rejected basic laws of logic like the law of non-contradiction, which modern Postmodernists also do. His writings were also notoriously filled with gibberish -- just like modern postmodernism writings.

    2. Careful LK. You might have to start writing some nuanced genealogies. And then it might become clear that things are a little more complex than the black and white, 'good guy' versus 'bad guy' posts that you're writing.

      Also, I have never been unable to understand anything in Hegel. Not that I agree with half of it. But, like the Post-Structuralists, it is all perfectly comprehensible.

      Also for the record: many people find Kant unreadable.

      Some nuance please. Less bellicose rhetoric and Whig history.

    3. I am astonished that Hegel's prose is always clear to you.

      Here is an example of it:

      “Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition; merely an abstract or an ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.–heat. The heating up of the sounding bodies, just as of beaten and or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.”
      Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, section 302
      I have to tell you I see no meaning here. Sir Karl Popper famously pointed to this passage as proof of Hegel's obscurantism.

  3. I tried to post a comment yesterday, but it seems to have gotten eaten.

    While I can understand your frustration, LK, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the number of people influenced by Postmodernism is probably much smaller than the number who believe in astrology, homeopathy, "New Age" philosophy, ancient aliens, an so on. It looms large at some universities, but nowhere else.

    1. But the universities teach new generations of the young.

      Shouldn't it be of great concern to anyone on the non-pomo Left that young people are being taught there is no objective truth, that texts can mean anything and that natural sciences are just one "narrative" which oppress other "narratives" (e.g., creation science)?

  4. Any thoughts on Lipovetsky's hypermodernism, LK?

    1. I am not familiar with it.

      If he believes the following things, then it is just another form postmodernist charlatanry:

      (1) the view that there is no such thing as objective truth;

      (2) cultural relativism;

      (3) following from (2) the view that there is no such thing as objective morality;

      (4) the view that modern science is just one “narrative” that is just as “valid” as any other, and

      (5) the view that no text can have a fixed meaning intended by its author.