If you ever need an example to explain why we need to be careful about the concepts and words we’re using, postmodernism is the one you’re looking for. Not sure if it’s just because of my academic background or the type of people consciously misusing the term but every time I see someone using postmodernism without even knowing what it really means causes some serious emotional reactions.
There are two sides of this bastardization of postmodernism and blaming everything they deemed wrong to it. Both comes from the similar “not even trying to understand what it means” attitude —and aims for a similar goal— but comes from totally different groups.
First one is quite famous, the new generation of right-wing figures all over the world claiming postmodernism —or cultural marxism, or postmodern neomarxism or critical theory or reified postmodernism…— first corrupted the academy and now they’re corrupting the society. Everything would be much better if postmodernism was gone.
I don’t think I have to go too deep into this side of the argument because it’s already discussed way too much. And there’s nothing useful in any of those people’s arguments —only the good old right finding a new way to blame the left.
Another side is somewhat new and usually comes from more “centrist, liberal” types. This group either focuses on “cancel culture” discourse and blames critical theory for it or comes from post-truth literature, blaming postmodernist academics for causing all of it.
This side, especially the post-truth ones, more problematic because not just they’re practically taking the same side with the above group but doing that while distancing themselves from everything and claiming postmodernist woke culture and radical right-wing groups and openly lying politicians into the same basket. They only do that because they’re willfully ignorant about the concept and the literature behind it and it’s also the easiest way to solve all of their problems. For example:
Yet the authors summarize their analysis of Social Justice scholarship by proclaiming it treats the principle that “objective truth does not exist and knowledge is socially constructed and a product of culture” as “The Truth, tolerates no dissent, and expects everyone to agree or be ‘cancelled.’” For those of us who have carefully read the literature, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s discussion of reified postmodernism in academic philosophy looks much more like incendiary fan fiction than scholarly analysis.
Books and articles like this —which turns postmodernism into a boogeyman they’ve imagined— are popping up more and more. Another example can be Lee McIntyre’s book ”Post-Truth” and its chapter on postmodernism.
The Chapter goes into great lengths to find proofs to blame post-truth to postmodernism but meanwhile shows how the author doesn’t even understand what Foucault or Derrida actually says or how it actually makes the connection. McIntyre proudly claims that “postmodernism is the father of post-truth” because Mike Cernovic said he studied postmodernist theory in college and there are signs of influence in the works of an intelligent design defender Phillip Johnson.
The chapter, just like the similar chapter in Ralph Keyes’ book Post-Truth Era, doesn’t really explain what postmodernism is or who those postmodernists are. Most of the time random names put into the category, even Heidegger can be a postmodernist according to McIntyre. They just cherry-pick people and quotes to make sure the evil postmodernism they imagined fits into the narrative. It’s especially sad because the rest of the books criticize people for doing the same thing.
(Just to make it clear, the whole Sokal affair or its copycat version is not even worth spending time here. One is an article sent to a journal without a peer review process and other published in a pay-to-publish scam. If those “burns” shows anything, it’s the academic publishing ecosystem is a trash fire.)
At this point, I think it’s time to explain what postmodernism actually is and how it should be understood.
If I have to make it simple, postmodern is not an ideology or a philosophical position but a concept to define the current conditions. Basically, postmodernism is dealing with the philosophical problems and issues with the modern era and what it brought. You’re not defending a position but defining and explaining a problem. What this means is basically when “postmodernist philosophers” talk about a condition or make an observation, they’re not taking sides with it but basically saying that “this is something that’s already here, I’m helping you to see it”.
I think the main cause of the intentional misrepresentation comes from here. Both groups I’ve talked above are fully aware of the fact that these theorists and philosophers making these problems crystal clear and creating holes in their political narratives. Both fascists, conservatives and neoliberals actually benefit from these problems and fully aware that once people start to see it, their stories will fall apart.
This is why they choose to blame people who point out those problems, instead of accepting there are problems. It’s especially easy because ideas and thinkers they return are the ones claiming everything is perfect, or they have the perfect theory to explain everything. If you say that “they’re wrong”, congratulations you just become a postmodernist.
Let’s make it even more clear with an example. Think of someone who lives in a house with worn out and poorly made roof and windows. They watch the weather report in the evening, meteorologist warns about a heavy rain tomorrow. They’re overconfident about themselves and their house, so they don’t think that’s a problem. Next day, rain starts and the house is flooded. But instead of finding the source of the problem and fixing it, they blame the “rainist” for saying that it’s going to rain tomorrow.
This is basically how we should understand the people who blame “postmodernists” for the problems we’re seeing everywhere. They don’t actually understand what those philosophers are saying but only using them to absolve themselves from any responsibility.
This also means that talking about a position called postmodernism or being a postmodernist doesn’t even make sense. Just like you can’t call a meteorologist a “rainist”, you can’t call a philosopher working on postmodern a postmodernist. It’s a concept to analyze and understand the current conditions we’re in and the problems we face. You can’t be someone siding with a problem, especially if your main goal is to solve that problem.