The post-truth prophets
Postmodernism predicted our post-truth hellscape. Everyone still hates it.
Nov 11, 2019, 8:30am EST
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The post-truth prophets
I was watching CNN’s Reliable Sources a couple of weeks ago and was struck by an exchange between host Brian Stelter and Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, a new book about online extremism.
They were discussing the false narratives surrounding President Trump and why they’re so difficult to cut through. As long as Trump has a right-wing media ecosystem to spin and protect and lie for him, the argument went, it’s just not clear that the “facts” matter all that much.
“People focus on the underlying facts,” Marantz told Stelter, “but the underlying facts are not the things that matter in terms of narrative-shaping … narrative-shaping happens on Fox News, in Congress, on the internet.”
That facts don’t seem to matter anymore is hardly a new observation. But it’s all the more urgent now, as we trudge into an impeachment process that will almost certainly lead to an unsatisfying conclusion in which no one version of the truth is likely to come out and be held by the public. In the 21st-century media ecosystem, “alternative facts” — as Kellyanne Conway’s famous formulation goes — can reign supreme, or at the very least blot out the truth.
But what really struck me about Stelter and Marantz’s conversation is how its insights about the death of facts and the profusion of narratives sprouted from a philosophical movement that began almost four decades ago but has since been blamed for the nihilism of the Trump era.
That movement is called “postmodernism,” and its legacy, while mixed, is very much worth revisiting. Postmodernism isn’t any one thing. It refers to a host of ideas and literary movements and even architectural styles. But what its critics fixate on is its purported attack on the idea of capital-T truth. Some key postmodern thinkers reveled in the idea’s destabilizing power and opened the door to questioning the very notion of objective knowledge. To hear critics tell it, the postmoderns created the post-truth future.
There is some truth to the critique. A version of postmodernism that questioned objective truth and promoted relativism was fashionable, even celebrated, in the academy in the 1980s and 1990s. But did the scribblings of obscure French philosophers really impel us into the age of Trump?
More likely, the changes that brought us that world were already underway when Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition — the book that coined the term — dropped in 1979. Forty years later, it’s more useful and accurate to view Lyotard and his fellow postmoderns’ work as a diagnosis of a world that was then already being fractured by mass media and technology.
Postmodernism didn’t set us on our path toward information dystopia. At its core, it identified a crisis that was brewing in its time — and that has reached a boil in our benighted present.
Postmodernism and its discontents
Postmodernism has been a favorite scapegoat for our ills for decades now. The conventional critique of postmodernism is that it’s nihilistic, a knock that you hear from critics on the left and the right.
In the Trump era, the critique has deepened — not just nihilistic, critics say, but the source of our era’s woes. Liberals like the former chief book critic for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, argue that postmodernism spilled out of the academy and seeped into the broader culture, devaluing the very concept of objectivity. She lays the fact-averse both-sideism of the Trump age at the feet of postmodernism, which she believes cemented the idea that no “perspective” can be privileged over another.
The psychologist and pop-philosopher Jordan Peterson believes postmodernism’s obsession with marginalization and cultural appropriation kicked off our current political correctness “crisis.” As he describes it in a blog post, postmodernism was the brainchild of a handful of leftist academics in the ’70s and ’80s who argued that “since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived … no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.”
For Peterson, postmodernism’s skepticism of capital-T truth unleashed the menace of identity politics and placed race and identity at the center of the struggle for power. There are a few problems with that logic, but if you buy Peterson’s premise, then his conclusion more or less follows.
Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author of Enlightenment Now, has expressed what is probably the most common complaint about postmodernism. He thinks of it as a progressive phantasm that has destroyed the liberal arts. “The humanities,” he says, “have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”
On Pinker’s view, postmodernism threatens the progress of science (by questioning the possibility of objective truth) and is also a poison pill for liberal democracies because it replaces the pursuit of shared truth with a leftist culture war over power and identity.
These sorts of takes — and there are enough to fill a library — are all united in their hostility to a school of philosophy they consider gleefully anti-truth.
What postmodernism is — and what it isn’t
Responding to critics of postmodernism can be exhausting because it’s never clear what they mean by the term — or, in many cases, because they’re attacking a cartoon version of it.
As Aaron Hanlon, an English professor at Colby College, explained last year in an excellent Washington Post column, postmodernism is “a contested series of assertions by many different people from several disciplines, hardly a monolithic philosophy.”
But the postmodernism most people have in mind has its roots in a school of French philosophy that emerged in the 1970s.
The basic idea, popularized by Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, was that we had reached the end of what he called “meta-narratives.” That meant there was no longer any single dominant account of the world, like historical Marxism or really any theory that attempted to explain human life in terms of absolute universal values.
It’s not so much that these accounts previously explained the world and then suddenly they didn’t; his point was that the world had become too fragmented and pluralistic to support anything like a moral or social consensus. None of our stories about history and justice — and for Lyotard, all ideologies were stories — could make any claim to superiority over the others.
Lyotard’s book is the first genuine work of postmodernism and probably still the clearest and most relevant. Lyotard — and I can’t stress this point enough — wasn’t saying that objective truth was impossible; instead, he argued that what passes for truth in postindustrial society is often a reflection of who holds power, and to forget that is to risk being manipulated.
He was making this claim against the backdrop of a society that lacked the basis for a common project. We were, instead, an atomized “consumer society” defined almost exclusively by commercial interests. At the same time, the institutions charged with discovering and disseminating truth — the government, media, the academy — were increasingly beholden to capital.
Lyotard believed that capitalism and technological changes resulted in the “mercantilization” of knowledge, which is a fancy way of saying that knowledge had become a commodity to be bought and sold like anything else. All of this, he insisted, would be intensified by the digital revolution (though he preferred the phrase “computerization”). He even suggested that in the future the great battle would be over who gets to control information.
Lyotard was too pessimistic about the reliability of science under capitalism, but his book isn’t — in any sense — a rejection of truth. His book was a warning, not a celebration. It wasn’t a call to nihilism or defense of relativism. He was identifying a crisis that was already underway. And his argument was less about the possibility of truth and more about how what we take to be true is often a reflection of unseen cultural and economic forces.
One of the reasons postmodernism has gotten such a bad rap is that theorists who followed Lyotard — like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, all French philosophers — took the movement in a different, more relativistic direction. And the writing itself became more dense and indecipherable.
Over time, as Hanlon told me, thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler, the celebrated American philosopher, emerged as the faces of postmodernism and “stole the show from Lyotard’s diagnosis and distorted the legacy of that book.”
We’re drowning in content
The postmodern writer who took Lyotard’s work seriously and pushed it into the digital age is Jean Baudrillard, another French academic. Baudrillard began his career studying the impact of consumerism on everyday life. Like Lyotard, he believed postmodernity was defined in large measure by “consumer society.” He also shared Lyotard’s view that new media technologies would become a massively disruptive force that would “scramble” our grand narratives.
But Baudrillard became singularly focused on media. He published arguably his most famous book, Simulacra and Simulation, in 1981, in which he explored the consequences of living in a heavily mediated world. The individual, he argued, had become submerged in content, symbols, and ads — and we can now add misinformation and clickbait to that list.
Baudrillard was one of the first postmodern philosophers to sound the alarm about the political implications of these transformations. Like a lot of postmoderns, he emerged out of the Marxist tradition. But he quickly realized that, in the late Cold War era, political resistance was getting harder and harder. Citizens were shape-shifting into consumers and actively participating in their own marginalization.
It’s crucial to remember that Baudrillard was thinking all of this through with Lyotard’s argument about the end of meta-narratives in the background. In Baudrillard’s mind, the triumph of liberal democracy, and the collapse of the Soviet model had paved the way for sterile consumerist politics. The future, he warned, would be shaped by markets and brands and an oversaturated media landscape.
For postmoderns like Baudrillard, television and now the internet immersed people in their own private realities. The constant battle for our attention means that we can experience whatever version of reality we prefer, whenever we prefer. Even worse, because media platforms are competing to win audiences, the incentives will always push them in the direction of catering to our worst impulses. After a while, we’re just awash in self-curated content.
Baudrillard popularized the world “simulacra” to describe the unreality this puts us in. Twitter, as Jonathan Chait recently suggested, is a kind of simulacrum. Spend enough time on it and your picture of reality becomes predictably warped. The content you consume is easily mistaken for the real world.
Baudrillard warned, almost three decades ago, that representations had become their own reality — far more real than actual reality. And that was before Twitter or Facebook were even conceivable.
The American postmodernist, Frederic Jameson, made very similar arguments in his 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism. Jameson, like Baudrillard, thought we were witnessing the rise of a “mass culture” in which media and capitalism color our experience of reality. Jameson was thinking less about “narratives” and more about how market ideology flattened culture and obliterated distinctions between high and low art. But he echoed Baudrillard’s warnings about the loss of a shared reality.
Thinkers like Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Jameson hold up pretty well, but there’s no denying the relativistic outgrowths of postmodernism. Many postmoderns held that truth was socially constructed, though not all of them argued that all truth claims were valid. But some of them did go that far.
This is the part of the critique of postmodernism that can be hard to rebut. As Michael Lynch, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut told me, postmodernism had its strengths and weaknesses. “Its crucial insight is that power in all its dark forms is what often determines what passes for truth in our culture and ignoring that makes you vulnerable to manipulation,” Lynch says.
But the big error, Lynch added, “is to infer from this that truth itself was determined by those in power. That collapses what passes for truth with truth itself, which is just a mistake, both politically and logically.”
Lynch, of course, is right. Some of the postmoderns took this initial insight from Lyotard — that power often dictates what we take to be true — and extended it to mean that there is no truth as such.
In other words, postmodernism, like any body of thought, is shot through with bad ideas, absurd claims, and shoddy thinkers. But if we look past the excesses and focus on the things it got right, it actually explains quite a lot about what we’re living through.
Moreover, any argument that says postmodernism “killed truth” implies that a small cadre of (mostly French) theorists writing obscure books and journal articles somehow transformed the world. If the world has changed, it has more to do structural changes in the information space — namely the explosion of digital technology — than with the works of Derrida or Foucault or any other writer.
Why all of this matters today
Postmodernism doesn’t explain everything about our current moment, but it absolutely explains some of it — like, for example, the “narratives” problem Stelter and Marantz lamented on CNN.
For the postmoderns, discrete facts weren’t all that valuable to most people. What really mattered were the narratives we relied on to make sense of all those facts. Think of narratives as a device for connecting the dots, a way of mapping our experience of the world. This process of connecting the dots has never been immune from bias or distortion.
The postmoderns made a simple point: Technology and globalization were making the world infinitely more complicated and that meant more information to process, more dots to connect. And one way to manage this chaos is to lean more and more on narratives that strip the world of its complexity — and often reinforce our biases at the same time.
In that sense, it’s not exactly new that people are constructing fact-free narratives about the world around them. What is new, and what the postmoderns were warning about decades ago, is the volume of narratives and the proliferation of media technologies designed to flood our consciousnesses with as much content as possible. This has changed the game and, to borrow Lyotard’s phrase, “scrambled” our perceptions of reality.
The best postmodern thinkers, in other words, anticipated where we were heading as a society. They could see how innovations in technology, capitalism, and media were distorting our shared sense of truth. And none of them — not even the most pessimistic — could’ve imagined the epistemic anarchy unleashed by Facebook or YouTube algorithms.
We’re now, as philosopher Thomas De Zengotita told me, “the authors of our own universes.” We’ve combined the puerility of televisual culture with the self-centeredness of digital culture. The result is the total triumph of the mediated self, where everyone can create, perform, and affirm their identity and their truth and the marketplace will oblige them at every step.
“And this whole technology thing,” De Zengotita wrote in 2005, “is only just getting started.” The media technologies that define our worlds are getting more sophisticated and more immersive every day. All of which is to say, the crisis signaled by postmodernity will only deepen.
But there is some value in at least understanding how we got here and why we can’t go back.