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Killing Ideology: A Defense of Postmodernism

Photograph Source: Data.Tron [8K Enhanced Version] by Ryoji Ikeda on show in transmediale 10 – Shervinafshar – CC BY-SA 3.0

There still remains much confusion over what postmodernity actually means, so take this sentence as only one attempt, courtesy of Urban Dictionary: “A term that you keep on hearing about in college and have to look up on Wikipedia. Basically says “fuck it” to the search for any intellectual conclusions.” Or, with less hostility from the same website: “The idea that there is no objective meaning, only subjective meaning, the meaning one brings to a thing, irrespective of the intent of the author, or of the Author, or of reality.”

Intellectuals who have fundamentally misunderstood postmodernism have claimed that it represents nothing—that the only purpose of said philosophy is to evade conclusion and remain aloof from the material condition of the common man. Criticisms of postmodernism intrude from both the left and right. From the right-wing, postmodernity may be associated with cultural Marxism—which is a way of both dismissing Marx and liberalism at once, and perhaps more importantly to link them in their same shared safe space of victimhood that will never be taken seriously by the right precisely because if the right were to see hierarchy, power, oppression, or privilege, it would no longer be able to look in the mirror.

More troubling is the critique of postmodernism from the left, where leftists may associate this grand theory with neoliberalism’s ethos of immorality and individualism. In short, the left is getting postmodernism completely backward when one thinks of it this way. Postmodernism is actually a way to build on Marxism, rather than replace it or distract from it. Any other conclusion would be buying the false divide between intersectional forms of liberation.

What postmodernity claims is that there is no truth precisely because the individual subject has a cultural/historical context—which seems directly in line with Marx’s radical humanism that treated human beings as actors and victims of a system, rather than competitive and unworthy figures.

To claim that subjectivity is nothing would be not dissimilar to Mr. Trump’s claim that all news is fake. Critics of postmodernity see it as the other way around. They assume that denying the existence of objective truth is denying truth altogether. Even Michel Foucalt, perhaps the most famous quote on quote postmodernist rejected the label because he wanted to be seen as someone who questioned the system. Mr. Foucalt should have embraced the label because the claim that there is no objectivity not only naturally favors the unheard (class and otherwise), we see that it fundamentally rejects the authoritarianism of even its own voice.

Even the best of critics of the corporate distribution of information and art in today’s neoliberal global economy find themselves in a position of totalitarianism. This is because they undergo the following process, which is the same as Mr. Trump’s analysis, even if far more accurate in its attempt at objectivity. Step 1 is to take what is accepted as the objective truth (accepted mainstream history, news, art, etc.) and point to its corruption (primarily financial but also could be ethnic or any other type of supposed imperfection, or a linkage, such as Jewish owned media smears). Once the objective truth of the “ruling class” is accepted by the consumer as merely subjective propaganda, we find the next step is to insert one’s own subjective interpretation of reality as objective truth, rather than, as a normal person might do, offering up your ideas as subjective alternatives. Now we find that there is new authority in the rogue subject and truth comes to gain meaning not through proof, but through the authority of the actor involved.

So, when postmodern folks claim subjectivity it is not that they are saying nothing, it is that they are acknowledging both their own flaws and the need for constant interrogation of the facts laid out before us. The idea that one must come to a conclusion in order to find truth is actually the definition of fascism. If a dictionary must appear in its final form, who says the human race must not also? And how would such a society deal with change—specifically that of cultural migration and economic unease.

So, hopefully, this at least establishes the urgent need to abandon the very concept of objective truth. Objective truth is anti-democratic. There is no such thing as an unbiased statement that has not been shaped by elements of power or hierarchy. There is no such thing as a random statement, and there is no such thing as a true statement. In fact, a random statement and a true statement amount to the same thing, and it is only by connecting them that we can give meaning to either.

I can hear the grumbles now. Saying truth is the same as randomness is actually saying nothing! Really? Then why on earth react to it at all? If this statement really said nothing, wouldn’t a more adequate response be: ‘what do you think?’ or even, just in case ‘can you speak up?’ No, but truth, in how we arrive at its exact conclusions, can only retain any meaning if we acknowledge how arbitrary it is to get to that exact spot of perfection. It is only then that we can begin to unpack the biases that got us to that spot, which of course aren’t random at all, and link throughout history, sociology, geography, physics and biology. It is only after we unmask the assumption that is in authority that we can dethrone it and restore democracy.

Now, there is nothing true about democracy either. Each person operates within their own distance from the truth but at least, to borrow Marx, implies ownership of the production of truth, rather than the blind following of it. Does such a philosophy naturally imply the free market, rather than Marxism? Not necessarily. The distribution of goods, the control over the means of production, those sorts of things are not the same as ideas, let alone people. It could be very possible to have a centralized form of economics that thrived for diverse ideas and people. In fact, such a neutral form of economics—pure in its democracy and lack of discrimination—would imply absolute blindness to differences and a replacement of this hierarchy of difference with universal human rights. That doesn’t mean that each difference wouldn’t get a say, it is to say that each would have a right, no matter their say.

It is fairly obvious that an economy that has no such tools to guarantee human rights would naturally create hierarchies to (re) order distribution and create profits. The idea that one must have an objective idea of truth to reject neoliberalism implies that the neoliberalism was a cultural, not an economic counter-revolution. This seems to apply a backward order of operations. Even though the neoliberal has assaulted the cultural and the personal, it a truly perplexing leap for Marxists to make the claim that as soon as the economic theory of their “objective” choice falls out of favor, we suddenly are not talking about economics anymore, but culture that drives the economy. Just dead wrong.

The goal of the lie of objective truth is to establish power for a certain group of people, so that they can therefore profit from and exploit the people whose truth does not fit the proper definition of normality. That’s why Foucalt saw prisons so clearly. What is a prison? And who decides it?

The corporate class accomplishes their goal by constructing the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” and then implying that the world runs on a war of ideas (culture) rather than a war of resources (economics). Let’s look at the origin of the terms left and right, which like Mr. Foucalt, must be excused (more like celebrated) as French!

During the French Revolution, the terms left and right merely referred to which side along a row one sat. The rich noble folk were on the right, the working class challengers on the left. It was simply a geographical distinction of interests (I was going to say class but that is not even exact, as we’ll discuss in a moment). The key point here is that people didn’t have different ideas about what was most “effective” in politics, the sides simply had different goals.

In fact, one doesn’t ever have an idea if it does not fit the goal they have in mind. It is said that the only people who believe in love are rich men and pretty women because why else would they get married? Now, if one gets the joke there it is simply that one can come to believe an ideology because it is convenient for them to do so. If one runs an oil company, it is convenient to believe climate change is not real. If this oil executive has an ocean front property, perhaps the more convenient idea becomes that poor people are lazy and deserve to die, seeing that denying climate change would lose them their home. Now, not everything is self-interested as I describe above, I would like to think most things aren’t, but it is all goal-oriented, many times altruistic.

But a pure all-knowing form of truth? Impossible! Fascist! And above all arrogant and blasphemous.

So when one sees a framing such a debate between left and right we must expose it. Firstly, such framing trivializes matter to personal preference, rather than material existence. The truth is that politics decides who lives, who dies, who cries, and who laughs. It is not enough to say people have an ideological disagreement. Do some people really favor death? And some sadness? While the other half of people favor life and happiness? Seems unlikely.

An idea is only seen as “working” by the corporate-controlled media if it gains profit. The truth is that the more a company neglects their consumers and workers, the more profit they will gain, and the more this company will grow. So a company that loses money is most likely “good” for most people, just not for their CEO. This is why there should be no private companies, only government ones that lose boatloads of money and provide for consumers and workers alike.

In a previous article, I argued that we should replace ideology with class but I have since come to recognize that class itself is just one of many material conditions (even if it is, as Marxists say, the defining one). Ultimately the role that class plays in the argument we have outlined is no different a role than any other group and therefore in political terms should exist not as a passive condition but an active group in which to organize common interests.

This is why it is astounding that many on the left and right agree that identity politics is bad or “gone too far” or something. Class, as the lettered John Helmeke points out, is an identity. This is not just superficially, obviously, but materially. Which is true for all identity politics, and this is why the materialist left should be pro-identity politics.

The argument against postmodernism is that it takes what was once concrete class and labor-based criticism and obscures it into liberal cultural nonsense. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that culture has multiplied and thus so should criticism? It surely is true that labor and class in the corporate media is the last thing to get talked about, and in that sense cultural radicalism will always be taken more seriously than economic radicalism in these spaces.

Still, should resentment of this fact really drive any discussion? Should we really be so keen on the objective, measurable role of wealth inequality that we reject all nuance and democratic possibility in our discourse?

This is not to say that the postmodern tilt to inaction and uncertainty is not in many ways perfect for the corporate bottom line. However, what we must begin to understand is that the tyranny of intolerance comes from the consolidation of ideas and diversification of economics. What the anti-modern subject of today argues is that the ideas have become too astray from their everyday lives while economics have become too centralized in a few hands.

This seems to be a backwards critique. Competition of economics is naturally bad for it allows companies to compete for the lowest price, thus the worst working conditions or the most environmental exploitation. If there was a government monopoly with no interest in price, this would never happen, barring corruption, which is cited as an inevitable form of communism. Surely that is true, but corruption is exactly where capitalism starts, so if communism was to end there, we’d find ourselves no worse in trying. On the other hand, anti-modern folks find that the diversity of ideas, the decentralizing of traditional social structures and the increasing intelligence of the average person must be alienating from the natural human way.

Here we find the great blind spot in an objective reality that is so resistant to change, or ironically, to truth. Postmodernity may be ahead spin but isn’t that the point of any worthy idea? To improve, rather than dull the masses? Would babying people under the guise of anti-intellectualism be anything more than privileged and condescending reductive assumptions about the so-called common man?

The greatest artists leave the viewer with a question, with a hunger to learn more, with possibility, with uncertainty, and with joy in the process. It is past time to reclaim postmodernism as the future of humanity. We have come too far to limit ourselves to concrete truths when the everyday concrete struggle for water, food, shelter, health care and peace remain so allusive. Why limit our thoughts in the same way we limit resources? Why can’t our ideas be bold enough to expand, to multiply, to breathe?

If the postmodern critics throw stones out of insecurity and shame for their lack of understanding, let me assure them that there is no need. No one understands it, and that is the beauty of every important idea, and the beauty of every stranger. To react with so much intolerance to ideas that challenge makes one wonder about the durability of tolerance for the Other, which will be the central question of our times as the old becomes uprooted and often dropped at our doorsteps, challenging the welcome mat, or even the 2nd amendment warning on the door.

It is true that every objective truth, ever marker of grand civilization, has been built on the back of the common man (especially common woman) and common beast. To ask the subjective truth its thoughts on such a matter naturally invites the Other in, and reminds us not that there is no objective truth, but there are always many sides unheard in its effects. Until every side, at every time is heard, by everyone, can the truth ever be known, or can it only be thrived for? The only lie is to say that truth has already been found. Such is the tyranny of Mr. Trump has he attempts to replace democratic education with the adoration of authority.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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