Talk delivered at the Munich Volkstheater on 14th October 2017 for Bayerischer Rundfunk’s annual Zundfunk-Netkongress.
I’ve noticed a revival in a minor but persistent trope of late, namely the habit of blaming postmodernist philosophy for somehow creating the current breakdown of societal consensus (a.k.a. “post-truth politics”). Here’s an example from someone who’s definitely big enough to know better, Daniel Dennett:
Dennett: Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. 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. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”
Interviewer: My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…
Dennett: Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.
I’m going to charitably assume that Dennett, like most of postmodernism’s tireless detractors, has simply read little or none of it. I will admit to not having devoured the entire canon myself, but in none of what I have read did I encounter the idea that it was “respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; rather, I encountered numerous early investigations into what was an already-existing phenomenon regarding the normalisation of cynicism about facts, particularly (though far from exclusively) in political discourses. Postmodernism was not dogma but diagnosis; blaming Foucault for post-truth politics is akin to blaming your death on the doctor who tells you you have cancer.
Indeed, without postmodernism posing those very questions, we’d likely have never ended up taking such a close look at cognitive bias — which is, after all, a pretty good psychological model for explaining the postmodern condition. (Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, while postmodernism was having its heyday, research psychology was largely devoted to optimising the science of making people buy shit they didn’t need; in doing so they developed countless strategies for the framing and manipulation of data, and weaponised the rhetorics of persuasion before gleefully offering them up to the highest bidder. None of which contributed to growing cynicism about facts and truth at all, of course. *rollseyes*)
The point of postmodernism is not and was never “there are no facts”, the denial of an objective reality. The point is that facts are unevenly distributed across a metamedium which distributes half-facts and falsehoods with equal facility. The point is that the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth objective reality is by definition inaccessible to the subjective experience of individuals; there is far too much to know for any one individual to know it all.
The point is that he who controls the distribution of stories controls the stories themselves.
Admittedly, there was some celebratory stuff about the smashing of metanarratives, as Dennett’s interviewer bravely brings up. And I suppose he’s kind of right, in that it helped shape a culture wherein it was respectable to question authority (though there’s a linear causality there which, as a card-carrying postmodernist, I find troubling; it seems just as likely that postmodernist thought could have been shaped by a culture of questioning authority).
But there’s nonetheless a vast difference between critiquing the concept of truth and critiquing those who declare themselves truth’s arbiter… and I suspect that Dennett’s identification with the latter role informs his anger. His rejoinder to the interviewer is a collosal tell, in a way: this is supposedly the most influential philosopher in the United States, and he’s reduced to Daddy-knows-besting a journalist with the temerity to ask an informed question about a colossal and complex topic which he’d written off with a brief and flimsy falsehood. He tells us that there is truth and there are lies, and that he can tell the difference, but he will not — perhaps cannot? — tell us how to distinguish them. Indeed, if we struggle to tell the difference, he has no patience with our weakmindedness.
So tell us again, Daniel: where exactly does this deep-seated division and demagoguery in American culture come from, hmm? To borrow from another philosopher: you can’t see the postmodern condition for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.
(I am also amused at the suggestion that postmodernism was ever fashionable or respectable outside the very rarified circles of academic sociology, having never read a positive word about it anywhere outside of the academic literature, with the possible exception of late 80s and early 90s UK music journalism — and it didn’t exactly get an easy ride inside the academic literature, either. But the funny bit is that it’s nonetheless quietly gone and become a huge part of how we understand our world, even if we don’t use the sociological lexicon. Pariser’s interminably successful “filter bubble” concept? It’s just a simplified model of the media mechanics of the postmodern condition… and you can barely spit without hitting an op-ed headline that includes it.
Facts only become truth once they’re packaged in a way we find palatable. You’d think a philosopher who hangs out in Silicon Valley would get that by now.)