Everyone hates postmodernism—but that doesn’t make it wrong

The joke is on us.
The joke is on us.
Image: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly/Banksy
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In the era of fake news, no one can agree on what’s true. How is it that we can share a common reality, yet experience it so differently from one another?

Some, like Michiko Kakutani in her new book The Death of Truth, argue that postmodernism is to blame. The messy and bewildering philosophy that emerged in the late 20th century—which considered everything relative and the meaning of all language subject to debate—led to the breakdown of reality, according to its critics. This line of thinking is why postmodernism ”may be the most loathed concept ever to have emerged from academia,” as Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College, writes in the Washington Post.

Even novelist David Foster Wallace—whose sprawling work Infinite Jest, with its many perspectives, certainly reads like a postmodern text—rejected postmodernism. He called it a “destructive” philosophy. Kakutani cites his critique in her book, which links the rise of Donald Trump from television boss to US president with the ascendance of postmodern theories.

But postmodernists didn’t create the new fractured reality; they merely described it. The French academics of the 1970s, particularly Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, saw the flaws in modernist thought—that old-timey Enlightenment-era notion that we all shared values, approved the same truths, and agreed on the facts. Instead, they acknowledged that reality is complicated. They recognized the changes happening in the late 20th century century—the erosion of authority, the ascendance of individual perspective—and developed the vocabulary to describe it.

This relativist view is helpful, though we may hate it. It’s as close to a description of reality as we can muster in a world where the line between real and fake is often blurred, and where we feel things to be true rather than knowing or thinking so. We may not know what’s true, but because of postmodernism, we have the means to speak accurately when accuracy is hard to locate.

From universal truth to fake news

Modernists of the 19th-century Enlightenment era and into the early 20th century believed that science and technology would lead to humanity’s inevitable progress. Knowledge was good, and our inevitable trajectory was onward and upward. More than that—we could agree on what things meant.

But after two world wars and the collapse of colonialism, budding postmodernists saw that the assumption of inevitable human progress was false. Likewise, the concept of universal truths no longer applied in transforming societies where language didn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

They searched for ways to describe an emerging world with a din of voices and viewpoints, in which biases based on backgrounds and experiences dictated alternate realities and undercut the supposed shared vision of what is right and good. Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge argued that we were becoming a consumer and media society, increasingly identifying with favored purchases, programs, and publications rather than our surroundings and neighbors, say. We could increasingly choose proliferating alternate realities that were particularly pleasing rather than dealing with whatever’s around.

The 1981 essay by Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation,” posited that imitations of reality—models, maps, symbols—were becoming more real than the things they depicted. Because we’re so entranced by imitations and idealizations of reality, like Disneyland for example, symbols start taking over. The exaggerations of the amusement park becomes our standard and we identify with this fantasy world more than with workaday life. Baudrillard argued that symbols had become more real to us than reality—hyperreal—such that Disneyland was ultimately more American than the actual lives of Americans. But the simulation also conceals the fact that there is no shared reality; actually, there isn’t a single thing that can be called “this American life.” Instead, there are countless different kinds of existences lived in the US, which are symbolized by an idealization, an amusement park, that doesn’t represent what it means to live in the nation.

If the postmodernists’ descriptions seemed to anticipate the woes of the 21st century—in which we’re hooked on technology that encourages us to act as constant shoppers and media personalities, imitating the idealized lives we see on our screens—it’s because these changes were already underway when postmodernists began writing. 

Representation is greater than truth

There are still facts, which are a kind of truth. Discernible, verifiable occurrences do make up reality. For example, we can say with certainty that a cocktail party happened at 8pm on a Friday night at our neighbor’s house, that 18 people attended, that the host served martinis and cheese and crackers and that certain things were said or done. But the meaning of these facts is up for dispute. There is no objective, universal truth we all agree upon when it comes to interpretation. 

Take an incident that arose at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in the Senate this September. The judge’s former law clerk, Zina Bash, sat behind him. On the first day, some viewers accused her of making a white power sign while resting her hand on her arm. (To people unfamiliar with the sign, this just looks like an “ok” symbol.)

Bash’s husband, US attorney John Bash, said the accusations were “repulsive.” He vociferously insisted that his wife didn’t even know what the symbol meant.

The plot thickens: the Anti-Defamation League explains that this symbol wasn’t originally white supremacist code, but emerged as a 4chan hoax meant to troll liberals on social media. It may not mean anything, but people thought it did, and many on the far-right adopted the symbol as a result. It has now arguably become a tool of the Make America Great Again movement as evidenced by its frequent use by Trump supporters, like a child behind him at a rally in Montana on Sept. 7.

Back at the confirmation hearings, Bash later in the week made the symbol quite explicitly—perhaps to mock those initially outraged, or to fuel the fires of liberal fury, or to jazz up what should have been a somber affair. For whatever reason she did it, this time, it was hard to argue that she had made the sign accidentally or was ignorant of its implications. And her intentions no longer mattered anyway.

Regardless of its initial meaning, or even Bash’s goals, how people interpreted the hand symbol became more important than the person and her actions. It’s the ultimate postmodern situation. 

Bash’s hands are what Baudrillard would call “the precession of simulacra,” where representation takes precedence over reality. The onetime hoax became real and augmented the truth. It was multiplied and amplified and debated on social media, taking on a life of its own. So much so that—if her husband’s claim of innocence is to be believed—Bash was influenced to imitate herself later in the week, deliberately making motions she supposedly hadn’t known, swept up in the potency of the sign.

Simulacra took over reality.  

Life as literary fiction  

We like to think that there are things which exist and words to describe them precisely, words which can communicate meaning to others. But postmodernists like Baudrillard argue that the hyperreal has replaced these simple associations—the symbols of truth merely hide the fact there is no truth. Or, in Baudrillard’s words:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have to be produced.

Baudrillard’s prime example of the hyperreal was Disneyland, a concentrated version of the US which is more representative of American life than the lives of Americans themselves, he believed. Since he wrote his notable essay, his point has been proven many times over. Take, for example, reality TV, an imitation of real life crafted for entertainment, which created a version of reality that now shapes whatever can be called “real life.”

Reality, then, is a kind of literary fiction which we all create based upon our experiences and the information we encounter. The characters we meet are all writing their own stories, many of which don’t correspond with ours. And that can be frustrating, because we humans want desperately to believe that there are some things we all hold dear and understand as valuable. Maybe that’s the universal truth: the desire to share a point of view.

And so we are left with an unmanageable reality. Who am I to argue with your truth? To do so would be to say that your experience and interpretations are invalid. So though you and I may not see eye to eye, as a product of a postmodern society, I must recognize the validity of your perspective, even when it contradicts my own beliefs and experiences.

Postmodernism is messy. The notion that there is no reality per se, and no truth that can’t be relativized, makes us all anxious and uncomfortable. We want, instead, to cling to older notions—concepts about shared values, humanity’s perpetual onward and upward progress, the power of knowledge to free us and improve our lot.   

In The Atlantic’s October issue, editor Jeffrey Goldberg admits that this is a “a moment in which truths that seemed self-evident are in doubt.” He writes that US democracy is in crisis, but cites the nation’s founding fathers and constitutional principles as a source of hope. Americans at one point held certain truths to be self-evident, or so wrote the powerful white men who drafted the Constitution.

But when you look at the facts, matters were complicated even back in the day. No one asked the slaves in the US about their values or their definition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The powerful were indifferent to women’s rights, too. Our shared values were espoused by people out of touch with many of us. Looking back to the founding of the country for a sense of moral comfort, in some respects, is just nostalgia for another unreality. 

That doesn’t mean we should trash the Constitution. But it does highlight the fact that the relativism of postmodernism existed before the vocabulary for its discussion formed. It may well be that we never really shared beliefs—we just had authorities dictating the truth, and it was easier to ignore other people’s perspectives in the past.

Instead of blaming postmodernists for the messiness of our time, we should be trying to find a new kind of language—one that allows us to speak across divides, rather than rejecting opposing perspectives as inherently false. We have to learn to acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of views and from this craft some kind of working truth. That may too be an illusion, but it will be more functional than living in denial. Otherwise, all that we’re left with is this impossible mess, and our perpetual rejection of life’s many inconvenient complexities.