Photo by: Jason Hafso
The word “postmodernism” might terrify you, excite you, or leave you confused as to what exactly it means. Strangely, the irreverence and attacks on stable meaning that were once part and parcel of the postmodern cultural movement are being used by conservatives today.
At one point in history, postmodernism had to its name a vanguard of thinkers whose credo was breaking with tradition, social conventions and metanarratives. Today, the alt-right have found a bizarre affinity with some of the most recognizable postmodern gestures including obscurantism, language games and deconstruction.
Former University of Toronto professor turned global intellectual celebrity, Jordan Peterson, is one of the most highly recognizable members of the alt-right today and has been one of postmodernism’s biggest critics over the last half decade. Himself a Christian, Peterson has launched attacks against some of postmodernist theory’s biggest names such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, calling them everything from dangerous to charlatans.
Recently, a clip went viral online from an interview Peterson had wherein he talks about his belief in God:
“People say to me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And I think: okay there’s a couple mysteries in that question; what do you mean ‘do’? What do you mean ‘you’? What do you mean ‘believe’? And what do you mean ‘God’?… If we’re going to get down to the fundamental brass tacks, we don’t really know what any of those things mean.”
Ironically, this response comes off like a parody of Derrida’s notion of deconstruction in which no word is positive in itself, and is only given meaning by its differential relations to other words within a closed order. However, despite Derrida’s famous statement that “there is nothing outside the text,” he still believed in an outside world—it’s just that we have to rely on language to represent our sense impressions of it to one another.
However, nothing — save text itself — was given a specific undeterminable privilege in Derrida’s system. Peterson, on the other hand, purposefully creates indeterminability around scripture and his belief of God. He will, though, opine on everything from capitalism being a natural sorting system of the best, to woke leftists ruining the university. In other words, he is postmodern when it’s convenient.
Another figure who fits squarely in the postmodernism meets conservatism camp is former U.S. president Donald J. Trump.
Trump displayed the obscenity, cynicism and irreverence for tradition that is characteristic of cultural postmodernity. Yet on the economics and policy front, he upheld the status quo with massive tax cuts for the rich and the continual undermining of the working class while cosying up to evangelical special interest groups.
An odd clip of Trump that emerged during his presidency captures perfectly the contradiction of terms in postmodernism and conservatism despite their recent forms of marriage. Trump is asked by an interviewer what his favorite verse from the Bible is. He replies:
“The Bible is very personal. I don’t want to get into it, I don’t want to get into it… the Bible means a lot to me but I don’t want to get into specifics… I think it’s just an incredible the whole Bible is an incredible [sic], I joke very much so, they always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say, my second favourite book of all time!”
Professor at University of Michigan, Matt McManus, is perhaps one of the only scholars whose work looks at the strange convergence of postmodernism and conservatism in the last few decades. In his work The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism he aligns the strange phenomenon with the emergence of neoliberalism’s political hegemony in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. McManus argues that in an age where there’s no discernible alternative to capitalism, it’s not surprising to see cultural logics centered around pastiche, reference and cynicism take hold over virtually all aspects of life.
Marx’s oft-quoted line that with capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” has no doubt been prophetic.
The strange dovetailing of postmodern cynicism with traditional values may be proof that our culture today reflects what in psychoanalysis is called fetishist disavowal [Verleugnung] — the “I know but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know” — of “the real conditions of life” that Marx located in his analysis of capital.
Puncturing this disavowal might be the key to an alternative to the current socio-political order.