Postmodernism is a superpower. Not like China is or the UK once was, but it’s like the special abilities held by Spiderman. When it comes to postmodernism, we could call our superhero Dr Creepy. In everyday life Dr Creepy is a six foot four lumberjack, built like a brick shithouse with hands like shovels. But when the going gets too rational, Dr Creepy takes out his iPhone 12 Pro Max and waves it around his ballbag area three times (because there are no phone boxes left) and instantly transforms into a pale junior lecturer with a low sperm count, wearing a lambswool v neck jumper, black rectangular glasses, slim-fit jeans and a pair of carefully curated trainers. The superpower - postmodernism - is released by Dr Creepy when he opens his slack jaw in a trembling motion and from his mouth emits a greenish gas which covers every established scientific discovery, every hard fought empirical conclusion and every notion of fundamental truth. Dr Creepy’s gaseous propellant hovers and lingers, gradually stupefying all those at the conference or in the lecture theatre, making them stumble about wondering which way is up and which way is down.
It’s a strong and magnificent power. Just think, to have the ability to confuse everyone and make them question their own understanding of the world means you don’t ever need to engage with them on any particularly robust premise; you just spew out approximations on a theme. If you don’t have a baseline of knowledge, a place where the wood can be discerned from the trees, then no one can actually figure out that you basically don’t know anything at all. Better still, you can easily make them doubt themselves and then create counterintuitive legislation that means they aren’t actually allowed to disagree with you about anything. This special ability has caught on in the ivory tower simply because by using particular code words like: positionality, decolonising, grand narrative, optic or lived experience, there’s no longer any need to read books to be a professor. The pioneering superheroes who created this gas of utter obfuscation in Brutalist offices around the world, had absolutely no idea that they would shape this monster back in the 60s, 70s, 80s or even 90s, and I think they would be appalled if they saw that the conclusion of the postmodern experiment was Dr Creepy and his faculty of shape-shifting ghouls.
The original snake oil salesmen, peddling this intellectual voodoo; figures like: Derrida, Foucault (who actually could have passed for a superhero looks-wise, but not so much when it came to allegations around his record with little boys), Lacan, Deleuze et al, were at least theorists who learnt the ropes before setting fire to them. Their intention, it seems to me at least, was to play with ideas as philosophers should, rather than home in on concepts and use them to conceal their own mediocrity; as some within the academy do today. The basic idea - though there is no basic idea, just a series of mutterings like those from a senile octogenarian - is that what we have accepted as objective fact - established over thousands of years - can now be debated on the basis that the fact in question has been created from a particular position of power, often to maintain or strengthen that power, and, more often than not, is there to make everything bad. Nothing is as you see it to these people, everything comes from the base position of, ‘it depends’. Take the following as an example:
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and all those who identify as something else, this is your Captain speaking - although we now prefer to say Medicine Person, as Captain has colonial connotations. Welcome aboard flight 357 to Cloud Cuckoo Land. Since all of the controls on this flying machine have been designed through the ancient, occult practices of physics and maths and were most likely carried out by white men, hell-bent on perpetuating the patriarchal racism of the time, you will doubtlessly be relieved to discover that on today’s flight we will be casting the lead to determine our altitude, consulting tea leaves to locate our position and, in order to determine airspeed, will be using a dampened finger held outside the window of the cockpit; this may create a little turbulence. In case any of you thought we had forgotten that this was ‘Folk Art Month’, we’d like to reassure you that we’ve replaced the landing gear with a hand-crafted Inuit sledge and our hosts will be chanting soothing prayers as a substitute to our usual, highly gendered safety announcements. We would like to wish you a happy flight, but remain sensitive to our neurodivergent passengers by wishing you ‘a flight’.”
The trouble with this Houdini-sized illusion is that it wastes time. While people debate whether something has been invented to suppress the working classes, or perpetuate systemic racism, or maintain some sort of state of patriarchy that taken to its logical conclusion will result in hooded lunatics carrying assault rifles; all of the contained concerns are not being solved. The reason they’re not being solved is simple: unless we actually agree that some things are this and some things are that - and I mean universally here - and that they have been PROVED to be so by rigorous research, then we have no chance of locating a solution to anything at all. I once wasted an enormous amount of time reading Gilles Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus, which is a book so large it could weigh down a body at the bottom of the North Sea. There were words and words, sentence after sentence and I didn’t understand any of it. Not a bloody word. But I’d been told that what was contained within this massive tome were the answers I sought. I was so distraught I couldn’t locate them, I turned to a fellow student. I asked her about the idea in this book of a, ‘wolf becoming anus’.
What the fuck is wrong with me? Why don’t I know why a wolf is an anus? I just see a sort of wild dog in the woods, howling. I see fur, a tongue lolling perhaps; but an anus? I’m so stupid. It’s like this meaning is almost there but just keeps running away. Maybe I’m not worldly enough or something? So she explained. I listened, I nodded, but the green vapour had gathered like fog around my head and I heard nothing but the words: positionality, grand narrative, optic and something else before I passed out. The truth is that the only person who says that kind of thing has just recovered from a very rocky ride on a combination of PCP and LSD. “Hey man, how was the trip?” “The wolf became an anus, now call me an ambulance please.”
So what do we do about this strange superpower that has swept through our higher education establishments and has managed, through legal means, to begin to enter common discourse and expectation? Well it’s difficult and complex, but there are some thoughts on this. Firstly, you could get hold of a few copies of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories (2020) and push it quite fiercely to your intellectually inclined pals. If you’re a student, you can hold your lecturers to account if they go in for this stuff. You can ask, in the old tradition of academia, “what do you mean, please clarify?” If you feel the fog, let it pass over you and say the following: “I don’t understand you. Can you please tell me why you think X is Y and Z is A? The way you present it makes no sense to me currently.” Don’t get angry, don’t shout, just get the clarity you deserve. Even if they have a strange blue haircut with shaved parts and weird fringes, they materially can do you no harm. Remember that. They are the same as you and I deep down. Generally, the best thing to do about it is read more than them (which is easy), work harder than them (which is also easy) and prepare yourselves for a very different future coming soon when this finally goes away.
For now, I’ll leave you with the words of Dr Jordan Peterson on the matter (the quote below is about 13’ into the video). “Postmodernists don’t believe in biology, but they act like they do because they die.”