We had such high hopes.
As discussion of deconstruction, relativism, Foucault and Derrida pervaded college campuses in the late 80s and early 90s, those of us with a political bent thought it was a good thing. We had grown up in a world of moral ambiguity, where a small number of elite sources put forth the truth, while we knew there was a different story not being told. Marginalized peoples needed to be given a voice, identity politics needed to trump mass-action politics, and a decade-long flurry of quotation marks was our badge of honor, proof that we knew that all “truth” was politically motivated.
It was fun too. Earnestness and self-importance took a back seat to irony, and if we looked like we didn’t care, it was only because we were waiting to be shown our skepticism was unfounded.
I have to admit I adopted the cohort. I actually was an undergrad in the first half of the 80s, surrounded by the last gasps of 60s protest politics, wondering why being a liberal was so tedious and unfun. I grew up watching the Boomers, thinking that my life would be like theirs, only to realize how much everything had changed by a year or two into my adulthood. How refreshing, then, to be given a new perspective, a new way of seeing the world. I devoured the writings of Thomas Kuhn and John Fiske, the early films of Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater, any music on the Gavin Report lists. Postmodernism had the practical ability to make our world anew!
I was excited by the prospect of a philosophical and cultural underpinning for a worldview that realized multiple viewpoints, appreciated diverse voices. I still remember the excitement of the first time I read Sandra Harding and truly realized how even the natural sciences could be studied with a gender bias, and how making this bias explicit allowed the possibility that people could “appreciate difference,” as the lingo stated. A world that enjoyed Jane Campion movies would certainly be more open and free.
It turns out I was wrong. Somewhere between the death of Kurt Cobain (and the death two weeks later of Richard Nixon) and the “proof” of Saddam’s WMDs, postmodernism began to eat itself. What seemed at first a way for all voices to be heard became a rationale for all other voices to be shut out. Somehow we got from Richard Rorty’s impossibility of truth to Sarah Palin’s “truth is whatever I say it is.”
To be honest, the leap isn’t that hard. It’s just that we didn’t see it. And, is in so many things, difficult ideas are problematic in the hands (and mouths) of those who only understand a little, and are dangerous when implemented by those only concerned with maintaining power. The problem lies also in the disconnect between the academic and real life. In the half-millennium since the Renaissance, and the 250 years since the height of the Enlightenment, average Western people have gotten pretty comfortable with Modernism and the idea of knowable truth, and a few books by a few professors aren’t going to change that. And while I doubt Roger Ailes and Andrew Breitbart have read Derrida, they seem to get the point. More importantly, they understand the gap between Derrida and the average Middle American, and know how to exploit it.
This is where I wish I could be prescriptive. It would be great to say, “here’s how to fix this” and anyone who knows me knows I want that. But our world is both modernist and postmodern, and it’s really, really hard to tell which truths are knowable and which ones aren’t, and where there is no truth at all. I do know that, in a nod to Leibnitz, the more little tiny pieces of truth we can accumulate, the greater the chance that what we see is kind of correct. Not in an absolute, epistemological way, but in that practical, everyday kind of way, the way that allows us to function. There may be no absolute knowable truth, but we have to set the bar somewhere.
To those under 50, to those who embraced postmodernism in our youth, like it or not, we’re the ones who have to set that bar.