Postmodernism took observable parts of human life, particularly cultural biases and the tendency of powerful people to oppress their neighbors, and built an elaborate philosophical system around them. The end result was a worldview that denied that humans could have any real connection to truth.
Recently, a New York Times article quoted a French government official as saying, “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.’’ The article went on to explain that “prominent [French] intellectuals have banded together against what they regard as contamination by the out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture.”
It’s tempting here to channel the faux outrage of the French policeman in the movie “Casablanca.” I’m shocked, shocked to learn that postmodern ideas born and bred in the rich soil of the French intelligentsia have mutated into something unsavory. Who could have predicted that divorcing truth from reality would lead to even more divisive and destructive ideas???
The path from Parisian literary theorists, puzzling over the power of words, to your not-so-friendly neighborhood activist, outraged by pronouns, is pretty clear. Reacting to the overconfidence and over-promises of Modernism and the Enlightenment, French intellectuals in the mid-20th century like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida proposed a way of thinking that was skeptical and largely cynical. Postmodernism took observable parts of human life, particularly cultural biases and the tendency of powerful people to oppress their neighbors, and built an elaborate philosophical system around them.
The end result was a worldview that denied that humans could have any real connection to truth. Instead, all we have is words by which we attempt to describe reality and communicate. These words, however, are hopelessly burdened with our culturally-determined biases that are shaped by the powerful. Our words so shape the way we see the world, Postmodernism suggested, that we have no access to reality at all. We are all trapped in our perspectives.
The spectrum of postmodern thought ran between an uncertainty regarding knowledge to a focus on power. Describing this way of thinking, Angela Franks recently wrote in First Things, “[W]e are not controlled by a puppet master. Rather, we live in a vast network of demands, commandments, inducements, sorting mechanisms, disciplines, and more. ‘Power’ has no center. It is the aggregate of multiple, shifting relationships.”