Defending Postmodernism

In an earlier post, perhaps I was too hard on postmodernism. From Jordan Peterson:

He says they don’t have gratitude, presumably directed at millennials who are being brainwashed with postmodernism but unaware of it, but also directed at the postmodernists themselves, who are doing the brainwashing.

Regarding socioeconomic outcomes, in agreement with Peterson, the postmodernist is wrong to blame collective factors (such as structural racism, oppression , etc.) for individual problems (poverty, academic underachievement, etc.), when factors that are intrinsic to the individual, such as biology (lows IQs, bad genes, high time preference, etc.) and poor decision making (such as majoring in a low-ROI subject in college), are to blame, not society as a whole.

However, one of Peterson’s mistakes is how he dismisses postmodernism as an evil in and of itself, unworthy of further debate or interpretation, rather than as a symptom of a broader problem. The aftermath of the financial crisis made everyone to some extent a postmodernist, as the rug had been pulled out, taking with it jobs, homes, retirements, and dreams, while those responsible were mostly unscathed. Given that all the ‘experts’, who are supposed to be bearers of ‘truth’, completely failed to see the crisis but may have also contributed to it, is it any surprise people are more skeptical of experts and their purposed monopoly on ‘truth’. Same for the Iraq war, in which the experts both failed to foresee the absence of weapons of mass destruction but also that the war would take nearly a decade, not just a few month as originally planned, and cost nearly three trillion dollars. The same for the invasion of Afghanistan, which went way over budget and overtime. Or that how the ‘power vacuum’ as a consequence of the Iraq war would eventually lead to ISIS and the Syria civil war.

Peterson is wrong to generalize the postmodernist ‘condition’ as being exclusively left-wing. Issues such as anomie, ennui, social isolation, anxiety, ‘atomization‘, healthcare, and permanent job loss due to automation, are not only more relevant than ever before, but such concerns are as applicable the ‘right’ as they are the’left’, making it a ‘shared narrative‘. The financial crisis was a repudiation and the beginning of the decline of the the self-sufficiency, pull-yourself-up atomistic brand of conservatism that had previously dominated for decades, and many on the ‘right’ are now entertaining basic income and post scarcity as solutions to job loss due to automation and trade. Furthermore, the postmodernist ‘centrality of power‘ is applicable to the right, too, not just the far-left. This ‘universality’ is how philosophy differs from politics. For easy applause, Person abdicates intellectual rigor for little more than a partisan political speech, than philosophical inquiry.

French philosopher Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, his 1979 publication The Postmodern Condition, describes postmodernism as standing in opposition to ‘grand narratives’ and reductionist views of history:

Lyotard criticizes metanarratives such as reductionism and teleological notions of human history such as those of the Enlightenment and Marxism, arguing that they have become untenable because of technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media and computer science. Techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift to linguistic and symbolic production as central elements of the postindustrial economy and the related postmodern culture, which had risen at the end of the 1950s after the reconstruction of western Europe. The result is a plurality of language-games (a term coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein[1]:67), of different types of argument. At the same time, the goal of truth in science is replaced by “performativity” and efficiency in the service of capital or the state, and science produces paradoxical results such as chaos theory, all of which undermine science’s grand narrative.[2] Lyotard professes a preference for this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives.

Likewise, many on the far-right oppose ‘Whig history’, a historical narrative that posits the inevitability and desirability of liberty and enlightenment values, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. The same for Francis Fukuyama and the inevitability of liberal democracy, what he called ‘the end of history’.

Peterson makes the mistake of trying to over-politicize philosophical concepts. Absurdism (which is defined as the struggle to find meaning in life; it doesn’t actually mean absurd as in logically impossible) and reconciling contradictions (such as the viralness of 5,000+ word long-form journalism articles in an era of Tweets and memes, or how STEM is so popular in America despite so much low-IQ dysfunction as well, or how there is so much wealth in Silicon Valley despite so many people otherwise feeling poor, both economically and socially), is also part of postmodernism. Regarding absurdism, how does one find meaning and reconcile mediocrity in an economy and society where one’s ‘net worth’ and IQ is inseparable from self worth? [1] To be aware of such things doesn’t make one a far-left liberal as Peterson mistakenly assumes.

Third, postmodernism is such a large philosophy, it’s multi-disciplinary, and one should resist the temptation to lump all postmodernism with left-wing politics as Peterson does. Postmodernism applies to sorts of things, including even writing, specifically, the relationship between the text, the context (both internal and external), and reader, and that’s where I think postmodernism is more interesting. The vast majority of political writing is at the object-level (politicians, news, etc.), but postmodernism takes it to a deeper level, such as meta discussions, asides, the annoying but very common tendency nowadays for online writers italicize words that have no reason to be italicized, and breaking the 4th wall, but also a lot of self-awareness and introspection. The circuitous, self-referential writings styles of Moldbug, Nick Land and other reactionary writers could be seen as postmodern in terms of aesthetics.

The posts here about intellectualism culture and post-2013 online journalism could be a form postmodernism, because rather than discussing objects (politics), they discuss the important role intelligence plays in how information itself is consumed and disseminated. For example, the irony is that although Jordan Peterson lambastes postmodernism, the postmodernist skepticism of absolutism is common among his own viewership, due to intellectualism culture, which is why posts that are skeptical of Peterson tend to be up-voted (or at least not downvoted to oblivion). The same skepticism is also observed in rationality communities too, which are also high IQ. That’s how intellectualism is counterintuitive, because intellectuals want to be challenged rather than submit to reductionist narratives, so postmodernism in the context of epistemology is appealing to intellectuals, regardless of politics..

Fourth, postmodernists (at least the ones online) don’t deny truth in so far as ‘universals’ are concerned (such as physical laws, history, math, statistics, data, etc.), but rather they tend to believe in epistemological uncertainly and the inability to make value statements from such universals (is-ought distinction). That’s why in high-IQ communities there is so much nitpicking over terminology, facts, and the very definition of words, because correctness in terms of the premises one uses to derive value statements, is more important than values themselves. For example, it’s not that gun control is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but whether the arguments one brings forth in discussing the pro or con side, are correct. As another example, why is Moldbug so popular and so so respected among the high-IQ left, but also among all high-IQ people in general, including many who find his values appalling? It doesn’t make sense on the surface, but the answer is in intellectualism culture. Moldbug is obviously very smart, and although his views may be far-out there, such views are founded on accurate historical premises and logic, meaning that he’s not just another kook pulling stuff out of thin air, but rather there are historic antecedents to his beliefs, and that gives him credibility among intellectuals by being extremely well-versed in history and political philosophy.

[1] In a deterministic economy and society, people exist for existence sake, not because of any deeper meaning or purpose. Social status and economic status is largely determined by IQ.