Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.
Not long ago, a friend of mine—an Air Force veteran now serving elsewhere in the public sector—interviewed a young, well-spoken, female applicant with a strong academic portfolio from a respected public university. A few questions into the interview, she started talking about “power structures” and their influence on every part of society. My friend, a bit bewildered, asked her to explain. He got a mouthful of pedantic jargonese about race and power that implied that he, a white male, was perpetuating a system that exploited and oppressed all manner of disenfranchised peoples, including the applicant, an Asian American. My friend patiently reminded the applicant that insinuating that he was racist might not be the most advised means of acquiring a job.
What my friend had encountered were concepts from some of the most predominant philosophical schools in the West: postmodernism and deconstructionism. Many conservatives and Christians know they’re supposed to be wary of these ideologies, as well their most notorious advocates, 20th-century Frenchmen Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. There is good reason for this wariness, given that postmodernism and deconstructionism, as they are understood at the popular level, are based on initial premises of skepticism and cynicism towards established authorities and beliefs. Yet a proper understanding (which admittedly is itself a problematic moniker for what those two words represent) reveals that they are an effective tool in dismantling the falsehoods of modernism, even if they ultimately fail to offer a robust, coherent alternative.
The problem with even classifying the thought of Foucault and Derrida is that they weren’t necessarily seeking to create a unified intellectual system to explain reality. Indeed, postmodern philosophers are de facto suspicious and critical of such attempts. They’re far more interested in making observations—often true and insightful—regarding certain aspects or subsets of knowledge. The problems develop when people try to universalize these observations.
Consider first Michel Foucault, whose most famous aphorism is that “power is knowledge.” This observation stems from Foucault’s experience with various institutions of power, including mental hospitals and prisons, though his analysis extends to factories, sex, and money, among other things. In his Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that knowledge is not disinterested or innocent, but inextricably united to power relationships that affect both the exterior and interior of man. This “disciplinary society” forces people, including through implicit societal surveillance, to conform to various cultural standards. Those who exist outside the ad hoc boundaries are often demonized, pathologized, and criminalized. Those who enjoy power and privilege aim to control those who do not.
Foucault’s theory of social construction certainly has merits—it is perhaps impossible to fully sever truth from power, as all information is communicated to us through mediums with some level of authority. Moreover, we can certainly point to many historical and contemporary examples of the “disciplinary society.” Today, political correctness and identity politics, mediated to us through powerful institutions like the media, the academy, and politics, corral us and foist upon us an ever-narrowing intellectual conformity, lest we be branded racists, homophobes, bigots, sexists, or the like.
In this respect, conservatives can actually turn Foucault back on his proponents, since they are now the ones commanding these oppressive power structures. Yet Foucault still fails inasmuch as his ideas are used to undermine any attempt at an objective universal truth. Indeed, to even engage in any argumentation or theorizing using language and logic is immediately to presuppose all manner of truths that one denies at his or her own peril. Not to mention, as TAC writer Graham Daseler notes, that power takes many forms, and sometimes those outside traditional power structures can still command influence and wealth. Alternatively, Western civilization has a millennia-old conception of servant leadership in which those with power are enjoined to consider themselves servants of those under their authority.
Jacques Derrida, in turn, is known for his declaration, “There is nothing outside the text.” In his Of Grammatology, Derrida the deconstructionist proposes that readers, and, more broadly, persons, can never truly “get behind” a text. There is no “pure” reading or viewing that is not subjective interpretation. This premise is then used to take apart ideas by uncovering assumptions and contradictions, while evaluating the context of those ideas and the way that language shapes them. Though Derrida doesn’t entirely reject the meaningfulness of language or the importance of truth, he, being a true postmodern, considers them unattainable ideals.
It is not hard to find truth in Derrida’s analysis. Our lives are defined by the interpretation of data, whether reading a text, listening to a speech, or considering our natural environment. When engaging data, we cannot suddenly put on our “objective hat,” step outside ourselves, and consider things as they really are. It’s helpful to remember this whenever one’s opponents start projecting objectivity or superiority, as if somehow they’ve discovered how to transcend their own subjective experience. Derrida’s theory starts to unravel, however, if the acknowledgment of subjectivity leads to a presumption that there is no objectivity, and debilitates man from attempting to discover it. Our very personal experiences push against such intellectual pessimism precisely because the more we interact with data—through mathematics, observation of nature, language between humans, etc.—the more we can perceive that there is indeed truth outside ourselves. The Aristotelian “triangle of reference” and the Thomist conception of analogy are helpful in conceptualizing a philosophical framework that enables access to objective truth while still acknowledging man’s subjectivity.
Finally, let’s consider Jean-Francois Lyotard and his definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard attacks the modern penchant for “metanarratives” that seek to apply a supposedly objective, totalizing, scientific approach to knowledge. Lyotard targets modern thinkers who propose “scientific” paradigms that can supposedly explain reality, whether it be Kant’s “noumena/phenomena” distinction, Hegel’s “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” model, or Marx’s economic analysis of human labor and capital. Whatever the metanarrative, Lyotard perceives an inherent tension. Modern thinkers claim to offer criteria that stand outside any local, historically and culturally conditioned paradigms. Yet they themselves operate within their own supposedly unassailable modernist paradigms. Thus they arrogantly seek to impose metanarratives of knowledge on all persons and cultures that are birthed within their own mini-narratives.
Lyotard’s analysis is useful in many respects. For one, as many writers and critics have noted, modern science can often be biased, political, and unscientific (in that it its data and analysis cannot be replicated). The scientific method as originally formulated in the Western tradition has much to be lauded, but many streams of it have been co-opted by power structures in order to justify all manner of social engineering and political agendas. Additionally, as TAC has been warning since its founding, liberalism is increasingly devoted to all manner of metanarratives that seek to remake both America and the world in its image.
Yet we should also be incredulous of “incredulity towards metanarratives” inasmuch as such suspicions can lead one to reject any metanarratives that transcend peoples or cultures. Indeed, Lyotard’s incredulity is itself a metanarrative of sorts, in that it seeks to explain the diversity of human experience. Moreover, some metanarratives have proven remarkably impervious to incredulity. Two plus two always seems to equal four, whether one is in Paris or Pyongyang; the logic behind syllogisms always applies whether one speaks French or Farsi.
Postmodernism ultimately must be understood as part of a broader sequence of historical developments within philosophical thought. Deconstructionists like Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard are all critiquing the modern project, and in many respects, their attacks are dead on. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the philosophies of modernism retain some truths, but are all fundamentally flawed. As Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko has argued in his masterful The Demon in Democracy, moderns promised freedom and perpetual progress, but have given us instead mediocrity and debasement. Unfortunately, instead of backtracking to where moderns took a wrong turn, postmodernists try to forge their own path. They thus commit the same sin as their modernist forefathers: pride. We should heed the words of American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, who declared that all philosophy is bound to fail when it arrogantly rejects out of hand the wisdom of the ancients (and Medievalists) who synthesized so much of human knowledge and wisdom that was indeed true, good, and beautiful.
Moreover, many postmoderns who promote a purist school of deconstructionism are fed their just desserts when their own paradigms are deconstructed. American university students have perceptibly recognized the inherent tension within a school of thought built on cynicism and suspicion. From Yale to Middlebury to Evergreen State, academics and university staff are suffering the effects of an education system that questions all authority and is always on the prowl for some injustice to protest, some to statue to topple. As conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari acknowledged in his shift away from the radical Left, in a postmodernity severed from any metanarrative of objective truth, there is “no standard left on which to base these various claims for justice.”
Should conservatives fear postmodernism? Not necessarily. But since it is in effect an extension and evolution of the modern mind, it is no panacea, and we must be prudent in applying its lessons. Anything that so casually rejects the wisdom of the ancients is bound to be dangerous, as we unfortunately keep having to be reminded.