Remembering Postmodernism, Part Three: The Conspiracy Theory of Postmodernism

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: There has been an unwanted lag in this series of posts, mainly because I’ve been struggling with what was supposed to be part three. Struggling in a good way! The TL;DR on it is that it occurred to me that a consideration of the artistic and literary responses to the two world wars respectively offers a useful insight into key elements of modernism and postmodernism. What initially seemed a straightforward, even simple breakdown has proved (not unpredictably, I now see) a lot more complex but also a lot more interesting. What I ultimately post may end up being the more straightforward version or possibly a two-part, lengthier consideration. One way or another, I’m quite enjoying going down this particular rabbit hole.

So in the meantime, in the interests of not letting this series lag too much, I’m leapfrogging to what was to have been part four.

My doctoral dissertation was on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postmodern American literature and culture. Towards the end of my defense, one of my examiners—a modernism scholar with a Wildean talent for aphoristic wit—asked “Is modernism postmodernism’s conspiracy theory?”

I should pause to note that I thoroughly enjoyed my thesis defense. This was largely because my examiners really liked my thesis, and so instead of being the pressure cooker these academic rites of passage can sometimes be, it was three hours of animated and lively discussion that the defense chair had to bring to a halt with some exasperation when we ran long. For all that, however, it was still three hours of intense scholarly back-and-forth, and so when my examiner asked about modernism as postmodernism’s conspiracy theory, my tank was nearly empty. I found myself wishing—and indeed gave voice to the thought—that the question had been asked in the first hour rather than the third, when I could have done it justice. I still kick myself to this day for not prefacing my response with a Simpsons reference (something the questioner would have appreciated), Reverend Lovejoy’s line “Short answer, yes with an if, long answer, no with a but,” and then getting into the intricacies and implications of the question. As it was, I seem to remember saying something insightful like “Um … sure?”

I’ve thought about that moment many times in the seventeen years (yikes) since I defended, mostly out of fondness for the questioner, who was and remains a friend, as well as annoyance with myself for not giving the question an answer it deserves (now that I think of it, perhaps I should include that in this series). But over the past few years, I’ve thought of it more in the context of how postmodernism itself—and its related but widely misunderstood concept “cultural Marxism”—have come to be treated as essentially conspiratorial in nature.

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, there is a (mis)understanding of postmodernism among anti-woke culture warriors as something specifically created by Leftists for the purpose of attacking, undermining, and destroying the edifices of Western civilization, as variously manifested in Enlightenment thought, the U.S. constitution, the traditional Western literary canon, manly men, the virtues of European imperialism, and so on. Postmodernity, rather than being the upshot of unchecked corporate capitalism and consumer culture, is seen instead as being the specific invention of resentful and closeted Marxist academics.

Of late, which is to say over the past five years, the most vocal purveyor of this conspiracy theory has been Jordan B. Peterson and his figuration of “postmodern neo-Marxism.” Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about either postmodernism or Marxism understands that, in this formulation, it is the word “neo” doing the heavy lifting—which perhaps betrays at least a slight understanding on Peterson’s part that there can be no such thing as “postmodern Marxism,” as the two terms are very nearly antithetical. Marxism is a modernist philosophy rooted in Enlightenment thought; what I’ve been loosely calling “postmodern thought,” which is to say the loose categorization of theories and philosophy arising largely out of the need to make sense of the postmodern condition, is generally antagonistic to the instrumental reason of the Enlightenment and such totalizing ideologies as Marxism, taking its philosophical leads instead from Friederichs Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. So if you’re going to attempt to conflate Marxism with postmodernism, it’s going to have to be very neo- indeed.

Peterson’s basic premise is that the “two architects of the postmodernist movement”[1]—specifically, the French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida[2]—were themselves dyed-in-the-wool Marxists; but that when they were making their academic bones in the 1960s, they were faced with the unavoidable failure of Communism as a political force.  In one of his ubiquitous YouTube lectures, he declares that “in the late 60s and early 70s, they were avowed Marxists, way, way after anyone with any shred of ethical decency had stopped being Marxist.”

The “postmodernists,” Peterson continues, “knew they were pretty much done with pushing their classic Marxism by the late 60s and the early 70s,” because the evidence of Stalin’s atrocities were by then so unavoidable that carrying on under the Marxist banner was untenable.

This assertion, as it happens, is laughably untrue: the Communist Party of France reliably garnered twenty percent of the legislative vote through the 1960s and 70s. There was no shortage of people, inside the university and out, who were “avowed” Marxists. There was really no reason Derrida and Foucault—who incidentally hated each other, so were hardly co-conspirators—would have been compelled to disguise their Marxist convictions. If indeed they had any: it is an irony that Peterson can make this argument in part because neither Derrida nor Foucault were avowed Marxists. They have, indeed, often been looked upon with suspicion by Marxist scholars, and frequently castigated (Derrida especially[3]) for precisely the reasons I cited above: namely, that they eschewed the principles of Marx’s teleological philosophy and an extrinsic historical order. They were, to coin an expression, a little too “postmodern” for Marxists’ tastes.

Though Peterson is by no means voicing an original idea—the charge that “cultural Marxists” comprise a shadowy cabal of professors seeking to destroy Western civilization was first articulated in the early 1990s—he does imbue his attack with his own uniquely greasy brand of ad hominem logic familiar to anyone who has taken issue with his many transphobic screeds. See if you can spot the code words:

Foucault in particular, who was an outcast and a bitter one, and a suicidal one, and through his entire life did everything he possibly could with his staggering I.Q. to figure out every treacherous way possible to undermine the structure that wouldn’t accept him in all his peculiarity—and it’s no wonder, because there’d be no way of making a structure that could possibly function if it was composed of people as peculiar, bitter, and resentful as Michel Foucault.

Michel Foucault, for those unfamiliar with him, was queer; much of his work was preoccupied with the ways in which people marginalized and stigmatized by their sexuality were policed by society, and the ways in which that policing—that exercise of power—was effected discursively through the designations of mental illness (Madness and Civilization, 1961), the disciplining of society via surveillance (Discipline and Punish, 1975), and the ways in which the categorization of sexual identities exemplifies the normative determination of the self (The History of Sexuality, four volumes, 1976, 1984, 1984, and 2018).

Peterson’s characterization of Foucault is, in this respect, frankly vile—as is his description of Foucault when he first introduces him into his discussion: “A more reprehensible individual you could hardly ever discover, or even dream up, no matter how twisted your imagination.” His repetition of the word “peculiar” is an obvious dog-whistle, and he damns Foucault for being an “outcast,” “bitter,” and “suicidal,” as if Foucault’s “outcast” status as a queer man with a galaxy-sized brain was somehow a character flaw rather than a function of the strictures of a society he understandably took umbrage with.[4] Peterson might be the psychologist here, but I do sense a certain amount of animosity and revulsion that is not entirely directed at Foucault’s philosophy.

One way or another, the charge here is that Foucault and Derrida effectively invented postmodernism as a means of sublimating their doctrinaire Marxism into something more insidious and invidious, which would burrow into university humanities departments like a virus; still speaking of Foucault, Peterson says, “In any case, he did put his brain to work trying to figure out (a) how to resurrect Marxism under a new guise, let’s say, and (b) how to justify the fact that it wasn’t his problem that he was an outsider, it was actually everyone else’s problem.” Some fifty-odd years later, goes the Peterson narrative—which, again, is not specific to him, but prevalent among his fellow-travelers on the so-called “intellectual Dark Web”— we’re dealing with the harvest of what Derrida and Foucault sowed in the form of Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, trans people asserting their right to their preferred pronouns, cancel culture, and the general upending of what cishet white men perceive as the natural order of things.

We can argue over how we got to this moment in history, but the idea that the postmodern condition—or whatever we want to call the present moment—was orchestrated by a handful of resentful French intellectuals should be relegated to the same place of shame as most conspiracy theories. As I’ve been attempting to argue in this series of posts is that while thinkers like Foucault and Derrida have indeed profoundly influenced postmodern thought, they are not—nor are any of their acolytes—responsible for the cultural conditions of postmodernity more broadly. They have, rather, attempted to develop vocabularies that can describe what we’ve come to call postmodernity.[5]


[1] The substance of Peterson’s conspiracy theory of postmodernism I quote here is from an invited lecture he delivered at the University of Wisconsin in 2017, posted to YouTube (the relevant bit starts at 29:30)

[2] Though Peterson acknowledges that Foucault and Derrida aren’t the only two masterminds of postmodern thought, they are, to the best of my knowledge, the only two he ever really talks about. I find it odd that, as a professor of psychology and practicing psychologist, he never (again, to the best of my knowledge) ever deals with the work of psycholinguist Jacques Lacan, whose poststructuralist adaptations of Freud are almost as influential as the work of Foucault and Derrida. Given how consistently he gets wrong the basic premises of Foucault and Derrida—but especially Foucault—the absence of Lacan from his diatribes strikes me as further evidence of the poverty of his understanding of the very issues he addresses.

[3] Derrida never tipped his ideological hand one way or another until his book Specters of Marx (1994), which he wrote in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the putative death of Communism. In this book he does his deconstructivist schtick, playing around with the trope of the “spectre,” talking a lot about the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and sort of admitting “Yeah, I was always a Marxist.” Some Marxist thinkers were overjoyed; many more were decidedly unimpressed, deriding him as a Johnny-come-lately only willing to assume the Marxist mantle as he sat among what he assumed was its ruins. In an essay bitterly titled “Marxism without Marxism,” Terry Eagleton wrote: “it is hard to resist asking, plaintively, where was Jacque Derrida when we needed him, in the long dark night of Reagan-Thatcher,” and continues on to say, “there is something rich … about this sudden dramatic somersault onto a stalled bandwagon. For Specters of Marx doesn’t just want to catch up with Marxism; it wants to outleft it by claiming that deconstruction was all along a radicalized version of the creed.”

[4] For those familiar with Peterson, this is consonant with his worldview, especially with respect to his anti-transgender animus. He is an unreconstructed Jungian: which is to say, he believes fervently in a sense of the biological imperatives of mythology—that all of our stories and narratives, our societal customs and traditions, are dictated by our most elemental relationships to nature. Hence his weird grafting of pseudo-Darwinian evolutionism onto myths of all stripes, from the Bible to ancient Egypt to the Greeks, and how these innate understandings manifest themselves in the popularity of Disney princesses or the necessary disciplinary presence of the bully Nelson in The Simpsons (seriously). The bottom line is that Peterson’s worldview is predicated on a sense of the innate, immutable nature of gender, gender roles, hierarchies, and the individual as the hero of his own story. Feminism, in this perspective, is a basic betrayal of human nature; people identifying as a gender other than their genitalia dictates? Well, that’s just beyond the pale.

[5] The opacity of those vocabularies, especially with regards to Derrida and Lacan, is another example of just how complex the postmodern condition is. Old joke from grad school: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a poststructuralist? Someone who’ll give you an offer you can’t understand.

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