In defence of postmodernism
Those blaming wokeness on Derrida or Foucault have totally misunderstood their work.
It has become common to blame wokeness on its supposed philosophical parent: postmodernism. As the standard narrative goes, postmodernism is the ideology that entrenched itself in Anglophone universities in the 1980s and 1990s. It talked of relativism, of the absence of objective truth, of the spectre of a pervasive, invisible power, and it was generally anti-Western. A whole generation of professors, writers, journalists and a fair few activists have subsequently been raised on this diet of postmodern thinking. And the result is a cultural elite that is wedded to wokeness.
As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay put it in Cynical Theories (2020): ‘Applied postmodernism has come into its own, been reified – taken as real, as The Truth according to social justice – and widely spread by activists and (ironically) turned into a dominant narrative of its own.’ In the Telegraph last month, Zoe Strimpel repeated this accusation, writing witheringly of ‘the postmodern mockery of truth that underpins wokeness’.
Many right-wing critics of wokeness will also talk of postmodernism as a species of what they call ‘cultural Marxism’, a term that they trace back to the early 20th-century Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Two postmodern thinkers often come in for particular vilification in this regard. First, there’s Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who professed that the meanings of words are forever unstable and elusive. And then, above all, there’s Michel Foucault (1926-1984), whose idea of oppressive power ideologies being invisible and ubiquitous has seemingly become central to wokeness, with its ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and its talk of ‘unwitting’, ‘unconscious’ and ‘perceived’ discrimination.
As Douglas Murray writes in The War on The West (2022), ‘Foucault’s obsessive analysis of everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of power relations diminished almost everything in society into a transactional, punitive and meaningless dystopia’. Elsewhere, Jordan Peterson has spoken of Derrida as ‘a trickster’ whose ‘postmodern and neo-Marxist theories’ threaten free speech. He has also talked of the ‘special contempt’ he reserves for Foucault.
For these critics of woke, Foucault’s influence, in particular, is seemingly everywhere. According to Murray, it’s through the ‘anti-colonial’ philosophy popularised by the Foucault-inspired scholar, Edward Said, that Foucault and therefore postmodernism have filtered down into woke philosophy, which holds that Western society is uniquely racist and to blame for all of today’s ills. Equally, right-wing critics of wokeness will claim that the trans movement has sprung from the postmodern contention that sexuality and gender are entirely socially constructed and therefore plastic and malleable.
If Foucault is regarded as the father of wokeness then 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tends to be regarded as the grandfather. After all, Foucault was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche and even proudly declared himself to be ‘Nietzchean’. Nietzsche, like Foucault, also saw all human behaviour stemming from the desire for power. And he conceived of morality – good and evil, right and wrong – as the mere manifestation of the will to power. As he wrote of the ‘origin of knowledge’, in The Joyous Science (1883): ‘Gradually, the human brain became full of such judgements and convictions, and a ferment, a struggle, and lust for power developed in this tangle. Not only utility and delight but every kind of impulse took sides in this fight about “truths”.’ One can see this Nietzschean sentiment at work in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975): ‘Power produces knowledge… power and knowledge directly imply one another.’
So, according to this largely right-wing narrative, wokeness is the product of a 20th-century philosophical assault on truth, objectivity and the West. And it was inspired by Nietzsche and led by several ‘cultural Marxist’ thinkers.
There are several problems with this rather neat story. The first error is to use the phrase ‘cultural Marxism’ to talk of postmodernism or wokeness. This term doesn’t really make sense. Marx himself conceived of his work as a historical materialism. It was focussed on class and the means of production, not on culture. Yes, in the 1940s and 1950s, some Frankfurt School thinkers, who sometimes presented themselves as Marxist, did focus on culture rather than class. But as Joanna Williams writes in How Woke Won (2022), their thinking ‘represented less a continuation of Marxism and more a break with Marx’.
Moreover, postmodern thinkers were broadly opposed to Marxism. Many may have been signed-up Communists in their youth (the French Communist Party dominated left-wing politics at the time), but by the 1960s they had become highly critical of Marxist politics. They rejected the idea that history was progressing ‘dialectically’ towards a communist future, or ‘telos’. And they were often hostile to the scientific objectivity and ‘Enlightenment’ values so central to Marxism. Foucault wrote that history was not the story of progress; it was but a series of non-linear discontinuities and contingencies. And Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), in his highly-influential The Postmodern Condition (1979), announced and celebrated the end of ‘grand narratives’, and with it the end of the Marxist ‘grand narrative’ of progress. Lyotard’s writings from the 1970s onwards were violently antithetical to Marxism, especially its claims to objective truth.
As for wokeness itself, it has nothing to do with Marxism. With their myopic focus on race and gender, woke activists are utterly blind to the material, class-structure of society. Today, bizarrely, it’s often conservatives who are more attuned to the plight of the working class than woke ‘radicals’. As Williams writes, ‘critics who insist that woke is simply Marxism in disguise are wide of the mark’.
More importantly, those blaming wokeness on the postmodernists overplay the influence of the likes of Derrida or Foucault. And they do so because they underplay the extent to which the woke have misappropriated postmodern thought. The great thinkers who we can reasonably call postmodern, from Nietzsche to Foucault, had none of the glib certitude, or punitive, dissent-crushing zeal that characterises wokeness. In fact, it is likely they would reject the intolerance and puritanism of wokeness.
Take Foucault. His thought and activism was marked above all by its emphasis on freedom. As JG Merquior concluded of the Frenchman: ‘libertarianism… is the best label for Foucault’s outlook as a social theorist. More precisely, he was (though he didn’t use the word) a modern anarchist’ (1). As Foucault showed in his famous 1971 television debate with Noam Chomsky, he firmly believed in liberty: ‘No matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience and oppositional groupings.’ He would likely have rebelled against the strictures and enforced conformism of wokeness, not endorsed them.
Foucault’s concept of power, especially ‘invisible power’, may have been seized upon by many woke and identitarian thinkers today. It certainly seems to inform their ideas of ‘systemic racism’ or ‘heteronormative’ power relations. But it’s a far more useful and illuminating idea than its contemporary woke misappropriation suggests.
Foucault’s concept of ‘panopticism’, which he develops in Discipline and Punish (1975), is worth examining here. This idea was named after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a circular building with a tower at the centre from which every room, and therefore every inhabitant, is completely visible. Bentham, a 19th-century philosopher and social reformer, envisaged the panopticon as a design for a prison, but in Foucault’s hands it became a metaphor for modern society – a society in which everyone, visible to everyone else, feels a pressure to conform, to act as one feels others expect one to act. ‘The panoptic schema’, wrote Foucault, ‘was destined to spread throughout the social body’. In this respect, the parable of the panopticon can be read today as a warning, perhaps even more chilling than that of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Foucault reminds us that oppression doesn’t have to be brutal and obvious. It can be silent, unseen and ultimately self-imposed.
If anything, Foucault’s thought lends itself to a critique of the invisible power wielded by our woke elites. Think of the way in which people feel compelled to behave in the age of social media, in which everyone is all too visible to everyone else. People fear admonition, ostracism or cancellation for not exhibiting the ‘correct’ views. And so they self-censor their sincere opinions and virtue-signal insincere opinions instead. This shows that the Foucauldian idea of an invisible power is very real.
Postmodernism vs wokeness
Rather than blame the postmodernists for wokeness, we should perhaps look to them for a means to resist wokeness. Indeed, we might even look to them for inspiration, for a means to cure our civilisation’s discontents.
If Foucault speaks to us today, so too does Nietzsche. He warned of the perils of groupthink at the behest of the herd and cautioned against man’s insatiable lust for power, often imposed with gleeful cruelty upon others. He would have certainly been critical of the conspicuous compassion of the woke, of their claims to be kinder and more caring than everyone else. Nietzsche well understood that those who talk like this are driven by pride and power. As he put it in The Will to Power: ‘If you do good merely out of compassion, you do good for yourself and not for your neighbour.’ Centuries before social media came around, Nietzsche knew why those who say ‘Be Kind’ on Twitter often behave in the most vile manner: those sure of their righteousness and goodness are always the most intolerant.
Derrida shouldn’t be derided as a nonsense-merchant, either. He reminds us of a truism that any thoughtful person knows: that the meaning of words and texts is unstable, indeterminate, open to change. Anyone who has re-read one of their favourite books, and experienced a slightly different book the second time around, will recognise this. No two readings are ever the same. And no two people read the same text in the same way.
Derrida was simply urging us never to take a text superficially or literally. He was exhorting us instead to question and interrogate language, to ask what it doesn’t say. Today’s literal-minded cancel-culture zealots, who seek to ban words and texts for being offensive, who imbue words with demonic, supernatural, voodoo powers, would do well to listen to Derrida. He reminds us that the meaning of words is often elusive, contingent, ironic, sarcastic, allegorical, hyperbolic, metaphorical and context-bound.
Even that most outlandish of postmodern thinkers, Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), has something to teach us today. For instance, he appreciated like few others the role of the electronic screen in creating reality. He recognised that, in the contemporary media-saturated world, what is real and what is represented have started to become one, caught in a loop. Baudrillard would have been fascinated by social media and the way the internet has changed the way we think, speak and write – radically reshaping reality itself.
Even postmodern relativism can serve a useful purpose today. Postmodernist thinkers did indeed cast doubt on objectivity and truth. But they did so in order to ask questions. Wokeness has no interest in asking questions of objective truth. It only wants to impose answers. It wants to talk, as Prince Harry does, of ‘my truth’. Nietzsche, for one, would have ruthlessly criticised this development. After all, he deplored Christianity precisely because it preached certitudes. He exalted doubt. As he wrote in Human, All Too Human (1878): ‘Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.’ The woke today are intolerant because they are too full of convictions. They are not self-questioning enough. These pious, censorious morality-enforcers epitomise ‘the herd’ that Nietzsche so vehemently deprecated throughout his work. He would recognise their ‘bitter envy, sour vindictiveness, mob pride’.
Foucault would have been deeply unimpressed by the woke obsession with identity. He said that the identities we ostensibly assume by ourselves are actually determined from outside. He called this ‘subjectification’ – ‘the way a human being turns him or herself into a subject’. Those who boast today of being ‘genderfluid’ or ‘pansexual’ are imposing concepts, categories and words of others’ devising on themselves. To those demanding state recognition of their identity or that others use their chosen pronouns, Foucault offers a rejoinder in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969): ‘Do not ask me who I am and… to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.’
Foucault’s rejection of the politics of identity is hardly a surprise. After all, he rejected the idea of fixed, stable categories. As did other postmodern thinkers. They would be better described as Foucault himself was, as ‘libertarian’ or ‘anarchist’. Or even ‘libertines’. After all, whatever you think of Foucault or Derrida, they were free thinkers. The same cannot be said of today’s bovine, unforgiving, cult-like devotees of woke, who Andrew Doyle has rightly described as the ‘New Puritans’.
The postmodernists exhorted us to question orthodoxies. They preached scepticism, autonomy, anti-authoritarianism and liberation. Today’s woke warriors preach obedience. When it comes to dissenters, they seek only to discipline and punish.
(1) Foucault, by J G Merquior, Fontana, 1991, p154
Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.
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