Make Postmodernism Great

Again: On the Ills of Blaming

Theory for Trump

– By Duncan Stuart|June 14, 2017

IN FEATURE

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With the election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit and the rise of right wing populism, we have supposedly entered the post-truth era. Truth is not only under suspicion, it is irrelevant. For many who hold such a view of recent events, the culprit responsible for this straying from the light is none other than postmodernism. The argument goes that postmodernism’s sceptical attitude towards truth and reason set the intellectual groundwork for the rise of post-truth politics. This is blatantly false. The tactics of Trump and the alt-right belong to the rule book of fascism, and fascism was concurrent with modernity, not postmodernity.

Daniel Dennett is perhaps the most well-known philosopher to have connected post-truth to post-modernism. In an interview that took place shortly after the election of Donald Trump, he stated “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”[1] In a similar vein, the left-wing publication Jacobin published a piece arguing that the alt-right had embraced postmodernism, and we should return to enlightenment-era thought.[2]

Connecting postmodernism to post-truth and the alt-right is, ironically enough, ill-thought out. There is not only a semantic problem here -postmodernists of course refuse to define postmodernism – but also the issue that postmodernism itself is born out of the intellectual response to fascism, and does not predate its emergence.

The anti-enlightenment bend of postmodernism was a response to the horrors of fascism. German Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—hardly postmodernists but important for it—claimed in their text Dialectic of Enlightenment that reason contained a germ of regression.[3] Walter Benjamin, a contemporary of Adorno and Horkheimer, wrote in 1940 that “there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarianism”.[4] There is something postmodern about the attitudes these thinkers represent. This mistrust of reason (at least as we commonly know it) and civilisation became part of the postmodern tradition. Yet the works of these thinkers emerge after and in response to fascism, not leading up to it.

From a pragmatic point of view, one may wonder why it matters if we can or cannot blame postmodernism for Trump. However, the rise of Trump has quickly become a convenient excuse for dismissing large parts of modern intellectual discourse. It seems important to point out the flaws in this, for if we are to blame postmodernism for Trump, we will be blaming a phantom for our concrete problems.  As will be shown below, such misdirection is exactly what Trump is banking on.

Lying in politics is, of course, nothing new. Deception is the most ancient of political traditions, and lies at the base of western political philosophy. It appears in Plato’s The Republic and the discussion of the noble lie—the foundational lie that enables a well governed society. Machiavelli’s The Prince, widely considered one of the first ‘modern’ texts of political theory, is the quintessential guide to deception and lying in politics.

Even Machiavelli, however, would caution against the lies associated with the Trump administration. The excessive lying of Trump is not generally tacit manoeuvring to gain a political advantage.  It is not so much an attempt to control information as an attempt to spread confusion and determine reality.

 Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of totalitarianism, dedicated a considerable amount of space to the role lying played in both Stalinist and Nazi regimes. For Arendt, the lying of totalitarian regimes was aimed not at concealing something, but erasing the distinction between truth and falsehood. It was invested in creating a world in which everything would depend on the ideology of the system. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she gives the following example:

In Nazi Germany, questioning the validity of racism and antisemitism when nothing mattered but race origin, when a career depended upon an “Aryan” physiognomy and the amount of food upon the number of one’s Jewish Grandparents, was like questioning the existence of the world.[5]

Here the lying works toward to realisation of a world; lying is a form of world building. The Stalinist regime was, in many ways, engaged in the same project, creating a world in which all failures of the Soviet System were due to Trotskyist sabotage and not economic mismanagement. Thus the crucial moment in George Orwell’s 1984 is when O’Brien claims “[i]t is impossible to see reality except through the eyes of the Party”.[6] This is the quintessentially totalitarian statement.

World building, the process that brought us the great utopian projects and the horrific dystopian realities of the 20th century belongs to modernity and modernism. It is the attempt to construct a grand narrative. Postmodernism is opposed to grand narratives.

At first it may seem that the lies of Trump and his administration are simply pathological. That is, it is a habit and not part of a malicious tactic. However, the lies and manoeuvres of the Trump administration constitute not an attempt at deception, but a struggle over reality. Hence, there are alternative facts and all news outlets that report messages not in line with the administration’s positions are ‘fake news’. This is not an attempt to hide an object from the eyes of the public, but rather an attempt to create an object for public viewing, to make a reality in “the eyes of the party.”

The construction of a grand narrative requires an ideological vision. There is some debate over whether Trump has an ideological bone in his body. Jeet Heer recently took a jab at Trump, alleging him to be “incapable of abstract thought” and thus incapable of ideological thinking.[7] Viciously pragmatist as he is, there are two things worth noting. The first is the influence of Stephen Bannon as the White House Chief Strategist, who is ideological. Stephen Bannon holds to a cyclic view of history put forth by William Strauss and Neil Howe, going so far as to make a documentary about their ideas. According to Strauss and Howe, America is ready for a time of strife and violent renewal. [8] This teleological form of thinking to which Bannon adheres is distinctly modern.

The second thing to note is that lying as world building is not necessarily ideologically-motivated. Stalin, for example, was described as a pragmatist, and it is unclear just how much of a committed Marxist he was.[9] Yet Stalin was able to build a world founded on the negative narrative that Russia was under constant threat. In an age of terrorism, and fear of ISIS, Trump does not even need to look so far afield for threats. Furthermore, they are more plausible that Stalin’s tenuous claims of constant Trotskyite sabotage.

So there is a modernist character to the lying of Trump and his administration. But have we not left behind modernism, abandoned the hopes of high modernism for postmodernism? It may not be possible to backtrack entirely, but modernity is not necessarily superseded and left behind by postmodernism. In A Singular Modernity Fredric Jameson points out that in the midst of postmodernity, we are returning to modernity.[10] Blaming Trump on postmodernism serves no end other than the intensifying of polemics between university professors with differing grand narratives. It tells us little about the intellectual roots of Trumpism, and misdirects us away from the issue at hand. If we call ‘Trumpism’ postmodernist, we may well be abandoning the very intellectual tools that will allow us to combat the rise of an old and insidious fascism.

 

Duncan Stuart is a Demos Editor.

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[1] Cadwalladr,C. (2017, 12 February) Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’ (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/12/daniel-dennett-politics-bacteria-bach-back-dawkins-trump-interview)

[2] Fluss, H and Frim, L. (2017, 11 March) Aliens, Antisemitism and Academia (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/jason-reza-jorjani-stony-brook-alt-right-arktos-continental-philosophy-modernity-enlightenment/)

[3] Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. 2002. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, xvi.

[4] Benjamin, Walter. 1968. Illuminations. Trans.Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 256.

[5] Arendt, Hannah. 1979. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harvest, 363.  

[6] Orwell, George. 2008. 1984. London: Penguin, 285.

[7]  Heer, J (2017, 3 February) Steve Bannon is Turning Trump into an Ethno-Nationalist Ideologue (https://newrepublic.com/article/140344/steve-bannon-turning-trump-ethno-nationalist-ideologue)

[8] Kaiser, D (2016, 18 November) Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the coming Crisis in American National Life (http://time.com/4575780/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning/)

[9] Conquest, Robert. 1971. The Great Terror. London: Pelican, 573.

[10] Jameson, Frederic. 2002. A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2.

Sources

Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harvest, 1979

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans.Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Cadwalladr,C. (2017, 12 February) Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’ (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/12/daniel-dennett-politics-bacteria-bach-back-dawkins-trump-interview)

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. London: Pelican, 1971

Fluss, H and Frim, L. (2017, 11 March) Aliens, Antisemitism and Academia (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/jason-reza-jorjani-stony-brook-alt-right-arktos-continental-philosophy-modernity-enlightenment/)

Heer, J (2017, 3 February) Steve Bannon is Turning Trump into an Ethno-Nationalist Ideologue (https://newrepublic.com/article/140344/steve-bannon-turning-trump-ethno-nationalist-ideologue)

Jameson, Frederic. A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2002.

Kaiser, D (2016, 18 November) Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the coming Crisis in American National Life (http://time.com/4575780/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning/)

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin, 2008.

 

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