French philosophers are having a very unpopular moment. They are being blamed for all sorts of social ills – campus intolerance and Trumpist falsehoods alike. This is odd not just because of the ideological opposites involved, but because the works of philosophy in question date from the 1960s and 70s and can hardly be said to represent the very cutting edge of philosophical trends. Yet there seems to be a common view that the school of literary theory called post-structuralist, and associated forms of thinking loosely called postmodernist – writers once considered difficult and obscure, the fibrous diet of graduate students in literature and philosophy, the ultimate in abstraction – have so penetrated public consciousness, even outside the university, that they are finally having an impact on public life and policy.
This week The New York Times, for example, wondered: "Has Trump Stolen Philosophy's Critical Tools?" The article was by a PhD student named Casey Williams, who speculates that the U.S. President's belief in "alternative facts" may actually reflect the view that language itself distorts reality, to the extent that all truths as expressed by language become relative. "These ideas," writes Williams, "animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they've become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology."
Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are the culprits most often named in this sort of essay: They are often held to be almost singlehandedly responsible for the elimination of any sort of objective reality or moral universality. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that they have been standard reading in literature departments since at least the 1980s. Because they were so difficult to read and had nothing at all to do with everyday life, outlets such as daily newspapers ignored them completely. The media are now discovering them, and are shocked.
Williams does a not bad job of summarizing the postmodern moment. The fundaments of the approach, he says, rely on the belief that "… facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts – scientists, reporters, witnesses – do so from a particular social position (maybe they're white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions … Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power."
These ideas all come from the left, of course, and are widely used as a critique of capitalist and patriarchal hegemony. So it's odd to think, as Williams does, that Trump might have "stolen our ideas and weaponized them." The writer acknowledges that it's unlikely that Steve Bannon is poring over Jean Baudrillard at the White House. But these ideas are in the air: The right has cottoned on to them because they are useful, from a Machiavellian perspective.
We are now in a paradoxical situation, he points out, in which the left is the side insisting on the existence of objective fact and scientific reality, for example in the area of climate change. This is unlike us. We have spent the past 40 years arguing that scientific fact can be classist, racist and sexist. We now have to wheel and face the possibility that science may have been our friend all along.
Indeed, the left itself is being torn apart by arguments over the value of some of our most cherished thinkers, for two reasons: because we are alarmed by the reality of a post-truth universe, and because our own ranks are being decimated by internecine disputes over these very concepts. Many liberals, who would be described as leftists by everyone outside the academy – they may be socialistic, pro-union, pro-gay, anti-racist, socially permissive, etc. – have found themselves, with great surprise, labelled conservatives or reactionaries by their anti-individualist, anti-humanist, "intersectionalist" peers, sometimes merely for being of a certain race or gender (which constitute privilege, the exposing of which is in itself an argument).
One particularly brave liberal, the British essayist Helen Pluckrose, has been consistently prodding the hornet's nest of leftist activism by repeatedly denouncing postmodern thought in essays and tweets. She recently write a longish summary of her position in the contrarian magazine Areo, wherein she claimed that "… the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in Western society."
She claims that the identitarian excesses of social justice activists is actually the latest fruition of these radical postwar ideas. She argues that the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, whose 1979 book The Postmodern Condition described a move away from overarching belief systems such as Christianity or Marxism, laid the foundation for identity politics: "We see in Lyotard an explicit epistemic relativity (belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts) and the advocacy of privileging 'lived experience' over empirical evidence."
She goes on to outline how the linguistic theories of Jacques Derrida, who argued language's relationship to meaning was problematic, lead in academic life to "intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation."
I was surprised to see a few of my leftist colleagues in the arts repost this essay: I was expecting Pluckrose to be mindlessly dismissed as sexist and racist and transphobic as is anyone who questions the doctrine of progress. The tide may be turning, even on the left – particularly as outrages against free speech continue to mount in the most expensive and privileged universities in the United States. And as more feelings are hurt – as feminists accuse each other of the worst betrayals and anti-racists accuse each other of racism.
It is a bit of a shame that these theories are being publicly revalued only now, 40 years after they began to become axiomatic in the study of the humanities. And now we will see an overreaction, too – there are many brilliant and fascinating and useful ideas in Derrida, and if we dismiss it all as dangerous we throw out the baby with the bathwater. The lag is more evidence that the disconnect between academic and public discourses has grown too great. We should talk more often.