Why has post-modernism taken hold so successfully, where did it come from and why does it continue to spread – despite the push-back and the warnings – a culture of mediocrity and reductive relativism that’s threatening to destroy centuries of Western thought and culture?
We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
The seeds of what’s become the global post-modernist juggernaut were sewn in an unusual way for a cultural movement. It was rooted in rejection of objective truth and an antipathy towards individual genius, the former an academic tantrum about relativity after Einstein’s new world-view shattered the confidence of would-be empiricists, the latter an abject failure to face the challenges implicit in modernist art and literature.
Post-modernism evolved into much more than just a school of Western literary theory and today, three full generations later, it has conflated itself through media (social media included) with a degraded democratisation of excellence that’s taken hold of vast swathes of “respectable” society and culture. The redefinition of excellence spread like a disease, from its inception, to erode truth and fact, disdaining expertise by somehow reducing it, in and outside the academy, to an abusive power dynamic.
This is a disastrous choice for us to be making, as a society. It’s steering a course that’s going to bankrupt Western culture, navigated by the most patiently determined with the best and brightest locked away in the hold. This bankruptcy ends only one way: in our inevitable obsolescence, as the torch of human progress passes East and the West cannibalises itself on a banal descent into permanent irrelevance.
From innocuous roots in late 1940s post-modernism has spread like a steady but relentless virus. It’s become a kind of formalised absolution from having to hold oneself to challenging interpersonal standards while at the same time calcifying lack of ambition and an intolerant denial of excellence. It is kept virulent by successive generations of committed well-trained advocates from a cabal of universities, media and other socially influential institutions, fed by a seemingly bottomless well of intellectual vanity and tenured self-interest.
Perhaps it’s an inevitable phase in the adolescence of universal suffrage, facing off the freedom to choose passive subjugation to predictable self-indulgence against the unpredictable dynamic world of science and progress. The former is the fantasy domain of the many, the latter a reality dominated by the few. We can’t all understand the calculus of relativity or the complex nuance of Shakespeare. Post-modernism has expanded precisely because it serves as a simpatico doctrine of the many. In a nutshell, that’s its temptation but, unless we want Western society to reverse itself blithely into terminal decline, it’s a temptation we need to expose and eradicate. Urgently.
Individuals aspiring to creative genius will largely fall short of that standard. Some, like intelligent university professors, will have the critical thinking necessary to see this failure as their own, to recognise in themselves personal shortcomings or, most telling, an insurmountable lack of talent. How could these scholars, accustomed to success, reconcile falling short of genius when it’s the thing they worship more than any other human characteristic? Post-modernism became the answer. It was the means to an end and it has served successive generations of post-war career academics – and their students. Just as the Nazis had bastardised Nietzsche to justify Aryan eugenics, the early post-modernists corrupted Heidegger’s rollback of temporal ontology (as the defining way to think about the world) to legitimise a rejection of the significance of all individual human beings, genius included, in the creative process. The poison entered the veins of post-war academia.
Reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average “reality” perceived by the communal eye.
— Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
POST-MODERNISM AS A SICKNESS
In the years after the second world war, societies in great flux demobilised into an altered citizen spirit. Post modernism was not at first a pervasive dogma. It incubated in the universities as a convergence of genuinely blue sky sociology studying conditions in the immediate aftermath of war with philosophy turned introspective in search of meaning in a post-industrial relativistic universe. Philosophy and sociology might have kept themselves uncorrupted were it not for the arts faculties – far more numerous and influential in an everyday sense – having been caught between a Joycean rock and a Woolfish hard place. Post-modernism calcified into a cross-faculty movement that’s been consolidating power ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, most famous emigre after Einstein, warned us what was going to happen in his greatest work, Pale Fire.
Career academics, their fragile conceits needing a system of protection against the genius of modernism, were driven to post-modernist ideas which they quickly and self-servingly appropriated. Back in the 1950s “Beat” poetry was emerging in Columbia University and it clashes almost immediately with the academic authorities. Colleges closed ranks to dispossess the new wave. Some version of this dichotomy played out in a hundred academies: tenured professors in the halls, modernist genius in portraits on their walls, the vital individuals who might’ve been their natural successors shut out, excluded, forced outside the institutions.
Battle lines were rapidly arranged. Post-modernism formalised into the armour chosen by the academy. The shut out was successful and it didn’t take long for the new ideology to spread.
The early motivation of academics may have been wrong but to counteract the poison we mustn’t see it as an incomprehensible weakness of character. Perhaps if it had been able to admit a little nuance – like humility – the future would have been different. It wasn’t able to do this, however. Committed to a reductive perversion of an intellectual relativism, quick to define the opposition in counter cultural terms, increasingly partnered with state expediency, things only got worse. The next generations of academics were well-organised cherry-picked successors greedy for authority but trained to play by the rules. Professional iconoclasts, some in pursuit of misguided but sincere notions of democratising the academy, established hostility to received wisdom and acted – in teams – to bring to heel outlier excellence. What began as a movement contained within a handful of university faculties marched forth like a new religion.
Post-modernism is particularly pernicious, once sufficiently widespread, because it gives faithful advocates a multipurpose toolkit designed perfectly for its continued spread and consolidation of degraded culture. The toolkit is subtle and subject specific, cynical and utilitarian, honed – ironically – by thousands of extremely clever social engineers, the most effective personnel of corporate academia. It covers jargon and linguistics, provides litmus tests to gauge friends and enemies, divide and conquer transformation of universities into safe zones promising accreditation and widespread publicity so long as there’s no gainsay of post-modernism’s unwritten rules. Like in a masonic lodge, would-be employees of current post-modernist doctrine (and goals) receive informal schooling in identifying one another and formal education in suitable, utilitarian techniques.
…for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
POST-MODERNISM AS NEOLIBERAL FREEMASONRY
Post-modernism cross-pollenated into the outside world through successive waves of graduates to colonise mainstream media. Its spread and tenacity is testimony to a lasting only too human appeal. Temptation to succumb to one’s worst instincts, when the alternative is complex, difficult and uncertain, will follow a person throughout their career. It’ll remain readily at hand should an academic or artist or media hold-out go through periods of self-doubt or crises of confidence. Taken as a movement, this system of pressure and solution builds to an inevitable coda: the choice between principled, independent hardship alone and acceptance, plenty and security in the welcoming club. From the universities to the mainstream, neoliberal economics became the vehicle for post-modernist pragmatism that needed no guns and cudgels to exert pressure and achieve its ends.
With a few exceptions, it had been left to America to take the lead in cutting edge academic and cultural continuity from the 1950s until as late as the 1970s. Its indigenous faculties had been bolstered by a diaspora of talent from Europe before the Second World War and this continued once it was over. The professionalisation of American universities as a vocational training rather than a nurturing of autonomous intellectuals brought market forces into the global academy as never before. Europe and now East Asia may no longer be behind North America but the parochial dollars-and-cents ambitions of the baby boomer period has impressed itself deeply on the institutions. Post-modernism was and is the mechanism of delivery, free market neoliberalism the lubricating economics, knowledge serving consumerism the marketing ambition of its moving parts.
But why is this particular club so bad? Isn’t post-modern neoliberalism better than communism or totalitarian fascism, for instance? Couldn’t post-modernist principles be liberating for young minds stifled by the straightjacket canon of past generations? These questions could have been debated until the 1980s, though even then the post-modern authorities were children of diminished progenitors. Sadly, the nature of the temptation offered by today’s post-modernism is too strong for most to resist. Early post-moderns began as pale fire apologists, cowed by the very proximate challenge of modernist genius. The later gatekeepers were schooled from the outset to see the world through a lens predefined to obscure past genius – strip individuals through group identity conflations – and focus increasingly on well-branded more up-to-date alternatives that looked right and received official accreditation but were stripped clean of any off-narrative ambiguity.
Half a century later the post-modernist network is well established throughout the world, organised in a macrostructure that resembles – more than anything else – the cooperative imam-led cells of Islam than any prior cultural movement. The academy has been locked in a stranglehold in the same way as certain industries were dominated by secret freemason lodges. Outsiders, outliers and would-be rebels can be pinpointed and delegitimised with remarkable precision, without compromising any individual mason. Moreover, there’s no need to instruct how to exculpate rebels as late as the time of their actual rebellion. Everyone in the lodge has the toolkit and already knows how to use it against objectionable targets, singling out early signs of trouble and reacting to quell problems long before any public manifestation.
… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.
— Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967)
TRUTH IS LIES – LOVE IS HATE – PEACE IS WAR – PLENTY IS STARVATION
Nowadays, cultural conformity has aligned with conservatism to appropriate tradition, hardened to the task by inevitable periods of counter cultural push-back. Converted to the tenets of post-modern anti-individualism, the institutions have been ready from early-on, to defend against any flash of genius threatening to be a legitimate successor of those modernist luminaries e.g. Jack Kerouac and the beats, Tennessee Williams and the Southern renaissance, James Baldwin and the civil rights movement. Individuals like these were corralled onto the front line and forced into confrontations with authority having been tarred with the counter culture brush and therefore singled out as a threat. The post-modernist arsenal learned to aim using those first waves of targets. The insidious schism between the academy and the individual was transposed onto a global narrative of culture versus counter culture that’s been polarising ever since.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the many academic institutions and plethora of media outlets, print, radio, television, film was irreparably divisive by the end of the 1960s. Vietnam, hippy anti-nationalism and student protests against corporate consumerism (e.g. the Situationists, the Weather Underground) brought the power of the state into direct conflict with the individual. The timing was fortuitous and an ideological conflict already well developed within the universities made post modernists natural and instructive bedfellows for those pushing the agenda of state authority. Both saw their chance: to permanently marginalise dissenters, including untrustworthy writers and auteurs and non-conformist professors; to train subsequent generations properly as ‘good’ future citizens, to nip any discord in the bud. Worst of all, anyone slipping through the net and presuming to exhibit genius out of context became a threat to the mainstream social order, same as those early ‘rebels’, subject to a takedown by every means available in the formidable state sanctioned post-modernist playbook.
The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly
— Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
DEATH OF THE AUTHOR GONE MAINSTREAM
Roland Barthes, French philosopher and literary critic, provided the seminal concept that allowed post-modernism’s craven iconoclasm to market itself into mainstream culture. His 1962 work Le Mort d’Auteur “Death of the Author” gave credibility to the academy’s anti-individual disdain of virtuosity in art, letting them claim the hard won life-works of artists and scientists without having to acknowledge those responsible; and this evade the challenge of their implicit high standards. Celebrity was permissible, even desirable, but was not allowed to be a democracy of talent. There would be a risk of making influential off-narrative platforms if it boiled down to a meritocracy ‘won’ by genius and hard work. This couldn’t happen. Personal contributions had to be aggregated into group identity unless the individual was a signed up member of the academy. Barthes and other misrepresented thinkers were tailored to meet these necessary terms.
The #metoo phenomenon is the latest diseased manifestation of the post-modernist toolkit. It was born of feminism and a genuinely authentic attack on misogyny and endemic patriarchy, turned into another way to bring down experts and excellence unwilling to confirm to the post-modern dictates of entrenched groupthink – in this case selected by and aimed at dominating anything involving gender.
There are islands of resistance to post-modernism dotted around the academy, media and mainstream culture. There remain leftover schools of thought, created out of sincere, useful ideas and not seeking to feed the growing monolith, like structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. These more authentic strains in philosophy and literary theory went through their own smaller conflicts and in most cases ended defeated or compromised by the powers-that-be. Leading lights like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Noam Chomsky were marginalised in plain site, separated from the mainstream of the academy into esoteric ‘special’ departments — a standard measure in the post-modernist manual when dealing with intransigent voices grown too noisy to gag or too marketable to de-platform off the public stage.
What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.
— Roland Barthes Mythologies (1957)
The most expedient aspects of post-structuralism and, increasingly, any new idea cropping up in academic circles, are identified fast then, notwithstanding having to deal with those stubborn individuals refusing to bend knee, censored of anything off-narrative and brought into the post-modernist mainstream. Post-structuralism was cannibalised into one of the most insidious movements of the latter culture war years: identity politics.
Feminism, civil rights, the fight against homophobia, legitimate movements all but in the hands of post-modern spin doctors were twisted to serve different goals and increase the firepower of the academy and its allies, the ambitious arbiters of culture. In fact, these particular appropriations have been the most significant criminal abuses of the post-modernist cabal.
The appropriation of feminism, sexuality and race should be a practical warning of the ultimate bankruptcy of post-modern ideology. Great women or great gay artists or genius who happen to be non-white aren’t freed from the shackles of traditional racist homophobic white male-privilege, to aspire to whatever greatness might be attained by their individual unfettered potential. Instead this potential is cut away, just as it is with any other presumption of genius, not by legislated prejudice but by the infinitely more subtle methods of the neoliberal post-modern toolkit.
I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.
— Germaine Greer (1939-)
Women are demeaned into ciphers, gays are flatlined and remade as icons all face no substance. Black writers, worst of all, are forced to be poster boys and poster girls, ring-fenced into representing only a narrow race-brand identity that’s more loathsome an apartheid than any township ghetto because it’s intellectual and cultural rather than just an segregation of wealth and physical space.
Stereotypes that never represented reality become lowest common denominator polytypes on which an identity is anchored, and against which anyone presuming to be part of the group must be judged. Transgender communism is one such corollary of identity politics: children forced into binary choices because they’ve shown a certain preference, transgender adults tied to levels of ‘worth’ defined only by the extremes a person will go to fit the ‘trans’ identity monolith.
Crossover regions where multiple post-modern identities must reach consensus to occupy unchallenged are seamlessly integrated into their respective groupthink politics and, even here the difference between an authentic movement and an identity political oppression using divide and conquer is clear: mark the considered responses of genuine feminists like Germaine Greer versus the misrepresentation and standard teardown tactics of self-appointed transgender leaders.
At best the new oppression is coercive rather than violent but great art and science is often inspired by oppression. It’s certainly always created by distinctive individuals and to be deprived of these outliers is to make mediocre currency of great potential. It’s ironic that the casualties of this battle are the very people those advocating identity politics pay lip service to be freeing and defending.
Great spirits have always encountered the most violent opposition from mediocre minds.
— Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
WHERE DOES “DEATH OF THE AUTEUR” END?
From innocent beginnings in the late 1940s, through first and second generation consolidation, post-modernism in the 21st century has evolved into a freemasonry of entrenched anti-intellectual mob legitimacy. It is positioned in the mainstream, confident and on the attack. It has appropriated a dozen counter-cultures, rebranding and often inverting their original good, turning them into cultural sticks to beat society and stand-out individuals into submission. Feminism was perverted by gender politics, anti-misogyny into #metoo, anti-homophobia into queer theory, the civil rights movement sullied by affirmative action, free speech constrained by political correctness.
Post-modernism has become ubiquitous, unarguably legitimate as it bears the stamp of academy credibility. It continues to spread, from the institutions through society, by brigades of well-taught neomasonic graduates. These days there’s only one line of defence against the self-serving end-game society continues to be driven towards and it must come from the independent individual.
The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.
— Roland Barthes (1915-1980)
The individual is problematic, however. Disorganised, unusual, independent, mostly atomised and often contrarian, the individual presents a disunited self-centred front – easy target for patient groupthinkers – but it’s the only other game in town. Complete victory for the post-modernist cabal will mean a society without genius, truth subjugated to expediency, cookie cutter people disallowed individuality and defined instead by group identity that’s tantamount to living caricvature. It’ll become a safe zone so widespread it looks the same as obsolescence and no-one left will be sufficiently ‘woke’ to notice.
Post-modernist generations pass the latest literary, linguistic and philosophical theory – especially in the early years schools of thought coming out of France and Germany – through the prism of democratised merit and everyman relativism to construct an extremely effective popular legitimacy serving the conceits of the tenured academy and their progeny. The career academic and journalist has an ever-evolving arsenal fit for the destruction of reputations and the exculpation of non-conforming genius. The success of this “death of the author” spin, cloaked in the complex language of post-structuralism and other extant obfuscating theory gave the post-modernists a commanding position by the end of the 1960s. This hegemony expressed itself into mainstream culture through successive waves of graduates. Its advance towards total eclipse has not once been checked.
The strength of the post-modernist academy comes in having bound itself hand in glove with state authority, underpinning its propaganda by an intellectual neoliberalism sold to the prospective members and the general public as responding to the vocational demands of the free market. Anything of substance seeking to thwart the academy or the increasingly polarising state narrative can be tarred with the ‘counter culture’ brush, ornery youth ever the frontline victims (e.g. the beat generation, hippies, gender fluid glams, punks, crusties, environmentalists, libertarians, pacifists, new athiests, trolls, intellectual dark web personalities, etc). Soon anything off-narrative will be subject to the same process of rapid marginalisation (in the case of individuals) and appropriation (in the case of movements).
I believe in the value of the book, which keeps something irreplaceable, and in the necessity of fighting to secure its respect.
— Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
What little resistance remained in the arts faculties was picked off in the post-Vietnam decades, neoliberalism and consumer capitalism natural bedfellows with post-modernism in a way that solidified in the 80s. Entrenched interests integrated branding in the 90s and their rulesets became received wisdom — unquestioned, presumed part of the natural order — by the millennium. Small wonder this cynical cultural regulation adapted quickly to take hold of the internet as soon as it blew up. The ring-fencing of social media, turning it into a vehicle for population control with clever echo chamber isolation of contrarian thinkers, is a paradigm of adaptive big society power in action.
As any historian will affirm, there was no way post-modernist culture would allow itself to be challenged by changes to the dynamics of society. Vigilant, pro-active and anti-individual to the marrow, the mainstream must remain committed to proven methodologies. This is the state of society in 2018. Outliers must be kept away from the public; and through technology this becomes possible, despite the interconnected nature of the online world. No genius can be allowed to turn a platform into a pedestal. No expert can be given credible authority over truth, however many facts might be marshalled in support.
The rotten core of the post-modernist movement has remained throughout and these days it’s forced to great lengths to prosecute absolute authority over its chosen territories. Methods have become more ruthless and its corrosive impact on Western culture grows more extreme each year. Today it weaponises such awful characteristics as toxic envy, blind outrage and endemic narcissism. Mediocrity has been branded so it’s synonymous with common sense, conformity trained by an intellectual communism whose prime directive is the denial of individual free thought. Power dynamics are abused daily, inverting expertise to a sin, spinning traditions of excellence as oppressive patriarchy, individuality subsumed – whether you like it or not – into a ‘know your place’ identity politics. Outsiders, and transgressors in particular, face dire potentially lifelong consequences.
The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself.
— Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
The post-modernist end-game is achieved, by default, using a mix of populism and passive aggression. There can be leaders, in the post-modern paradigm state, but these must be caricatures, salaried celebrities or pliable accidents of ethnicity. What used to be meritocracy is turned into a lottery – and lottery is an easier sell to a public convinced of its own worth and conveniently conditioned against critical thinking and inconvenient self-examination.
Death of the author – the pro-active exclusion of individual genius – post-modernism wed with neoliberal identity politics results in an everyday life lived as if it was a reality show – authenticity kept ever at arms length – and it’s an easy fit with slogans of democracy and disempowering parables inculcating universal median values. Ironically, equality itself has become a twisted principle: not so much equality of outcome, which is commonly and correctly singled out as impossibly injudicious, but more disastrously an equality of process. It’s nothing less than a cultural coma.
The whole warped system is delivered efficiently through, appropriately enough, exploitation of the very worst of human traits: vanity, egoism, outrage and opinion over tolerance and complex nuance. At best, it’s a recipe for mediocrity, a disconnection with centuries of intellectual and cultural tradition that may not ever be restored. At worst it’s dictatorship by the mob imposed by kangaroo courts of public opinion, a descent into intellectual and cultural barbarism. In this multifarious world, if we accept the broad sweep of modern history as a symbiosis of the enlightenment West and the utilitarian East, the former is at risk of becoming permanently obsolete.
We’re quick to spot the nightmare dystopian East when we hear about China and its surveillance social media scorecards for a billion citizens but the West is heading for worse. A culture of regulated mediocrity without individual challenge is a creeping death and we will increasingly fall behind as the rest of the world moves forward. The Western traditions that have nurtured individual freedom and — quite rightly — arranged a diverse meritocracy of achievement around encouraging and nurturing genius and original thought: all of this is at risk if the post-modernist social order achieves complete victory.
Soon enough the voices of protest and their cries of “Shakespeare” “Socrates” “Rimbaud” “Tchaikovsky” “Bacon” “Bacon” “Newton” “Mozart” “Jefferson” “Darwin” “Sartre” “Dumas” “Einstein” “Eliot” “King” “Kant” “Clemens” “Keynes” “Tesla” “Feynman” “Proust” “Goethe” “Johnson” “Bronte” “Curie” “Nietzsche” “Fellini” “Marx” “Locke” “Penrose” “Kerouac” “Kafka” “Orwell” “Swift” “Dostoevsky” “Lincoln” “Voltaire” “Aristotle” “Chaucer” “Boccaccio” “ Blake” “Poe” “Davis” “Liebniz” “Dante” “Dali” “Gallileo” “Milton” “Ali” “Ibsen” “Michelangelo” “Shelley” “Heidegger” “Rilke” “Freud” “Fermi” “Marlowe” “O’Neal” “Gogol” “da Vinci” “Auden” “Thoreau” “Tolkien” “Turing” “Rodin” “Turner” “Jung” “Picasso” “Kusturica” “Chomsky” will die away. What remains will be the echoing hubbub of an outraged mob that amounts to nothing more than an irrelevant cultural silence.
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
— Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
Selected bibliography (English translations):
- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)
- Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
- Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf (1922)
- Public Opinion, Walter Lippman (1922)
- The Waves, Virginia Woolf (1927)
- To The Lighthouse, Virginia Wool (1931)
- The World As I See It, Albert Einstein (1949)
- Mythologies, Roland Barthes (1957)
- Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
- Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (1964)
- The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord (1964)
- Speech and Phenomena, Jacques Derrida (1967)
- Death of the Author, Roland Barthes (1967)
- The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer (1970)
- The Pleasure Of The Text, Roland Barthes (1973)
- Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida (1976)
- The Semantic Challenge, Roland Barthes (1985)
- Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman (1988)
- The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer (1999)