Postmodernism, Foucault & Derrida and You

We’ve come to the place where it’s time to discuss postmodernism, and Foucault, and Derrida, among others. I’m going to work at keeping it short and simple, but understand that in doing this cursory explanation we’re only touching the tip of a very large iceberg. It’s easy to be fooled by an iceberg since we see only a third of it out of water, two-thirds are below the water line.

I’ll recommend a good book, Cynical Theories; How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. The two authors describe themselves as classical liberals so it isn’t just some conservative bias. I must warn you though, it is written in academic style with tons of information packed into each paragraph. Worth reading, but have a yellow highlighter with you.

Since the 1960s postmodernism has been the main food of academics and they’ve feasted on it to the point that it is the only food they eat. Postmodernism began at the academic level where intellectuals and academics fawned over theories of un-knowledge. Had it stayed in the backrooms of academia it would have been just another philosophical exercise in thinking. It didn’t stay there and over time it worked its way down the chain of people to students, whose excitement over this new theoretical idealism then animated everyday people. 

Pluckrose and Lindsay in their book tell us that the theoretical as it worked its way out of academia into everyday people morphed into what they call “applied postmodernism.” This is putting theory into practice. What happened is that the main river of postmodernism began to form riverlets like little fingers off the main river that became radical activist projects such as Postcolonial theory, Queer theory (LGBTQ), Critical Race Theory (BLM), among many other theories that fracture us and change our cultural and philosophical understanding of who we are and what constitutes society.

What is the attraction of skepticism and nihilism and the denial of knowable truth in any absolute way that so many find compelling? It’s an answer to an unanswerable question why things always seem to go wrong. If we could find an answer in theory we could have world peace. Utopias are theoretical constructs, they never work beyond the small and confined. But if we could build one in theory that worked on a large scale why shouldn’t we.

Since what we have always been doing never really works as promised let’s jettison everything we’ve done and thought and begin from scratch.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984). He began as a structuralist—a way of studying human culture that emphasizes the importance of its basic structures and the relationships between its parts. This was philosophical rationalism. Because this didn’t work in finding good answers to what makes a great society without problems, he then moved into poststructuralism, denying structure had meaning. One of his great influences on postmodernism comes from his theory of power. Typically power was always thought of in terms of state power. Two people exemplified this idea, the German social theorist Max Weber (1864-1920) who argued that state power consisted in “a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” And Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the English philosopher and original theorist of state power, saw the essence of power as state sovereignty.

What the French called les sciences humaines, or “the human sciences,” that is, biology, physical anthropology, clinical medicine, psychology, sociology, and criminology that had captured the thinking in 19th century Western thought, Foucault considered it exercises in futility, never coming to a satisfactory solution to issues each raised. Even the Anglo-American positivist tradition which  had faulted the human sciences because their methods didn’t work, but an answer using the rigor of mathematics or physics also failed in its attempt.

Foucault looked at man as both object—like any other object in the natural world, obedient to the indiscriminate dictates of physical laws—and as subject, an agent uniquely capable of comprehending and altering his worldly condition in order to become more fully, more essentially, himself. For him this binary definition was not real, rather it was a contradiction in terms. It was all wrapped up in the idea of power,

Foucault saw power not as state power but sovereignty or individual power:

“Foucault accepted that there were real forces of violence in the world, and not only state violence. There is also corporate violence due to enormous condensations of capital, gender violence in the form of patriarchy, and the violence’s both overt and subtle of white supremacy in such forms as chattel slavery, real-estate redlining, and now mass incarceration.”

He called this “bio-power”. In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault writes of “[A] power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” In this case it isn’t the power of the gun but of language used to control.

Jacques Derrida (1930—2004). His greatest contribution to postmodernism is his concept of deconstruction. We all know what construction is, it is building something and it’s the words and ideas we use to form a sentence. Put the prefix “de” in front of it and now it means tearing down what we’ve constructed.

Metaphysics [of the past] creates dualistic oppositions [i.e., good/bad, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual] and installs a hierarchy [the power of the word] that unfortunately privileges one term of each.

“The deconstructive strategy is to unmask these . . . ways of thinking, and it operates on them especially through two steps—reversing dichotomies [denying them] and attempting to corrupt the dichotomies themselves [make the terms mean something else]. The strategy also aims to show that there are undecidables, that is, something that cannot conform to either side of a dichotomy or opposition.”

To get a better grasp on this let me quote from Cynical Theories:

“[Postmodernism erases] the boundary between that which is objectively true and that which is subjectively experienced. The perception of society as formed of individuals interacting with universal reality in unique ways—which underlies the liberal principles of individual freedom, shared humanity, and equal opportunities—was replaced by multiple allegedly equally valid knowledges and truths, constructed by groups of people with shared markers of identity [now known as identity politics or tribalism] related to their positions in society. Knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality are therefore, according to postmodernist thinking, culturally constructed and relative products of individual cultures, none of which poses the necessary tools or terms to evaluate the others.’

Let me simplify this: there is no universal truth by which we can judge one truth against another. 

So Judge Barrett uses the long accepted language in answering a question with the words “sexual preference” and liberals go apoplectic and Merriam-Webster Dictionary immediately changes that term in their internet dictionary and calls it “offensive” language. No discussion on language, just change it now. How could something so innocent be so viciously attacked? Because it is considered by the LGBTQ community and liberals as a biopower word that suppressed one’s interpretation of themselves and conservatives used that language to control gender identities. This is both Foucault and Derrida speaking postmodernism.

The same is true where I began this essay with the definition of family when BLM defines family totally contradictorily to how it has historically been defined in almost every culture. That’s Foucault and Derrida and postmodernism.