Sunday, June 14, 2015

Postmodernism: The Historical Background

Before discussing postmodernism proper, a few words about French intellectual life. Since most of our theorists were Frenchmen who did their principle work in the 60’s and 70’s, and since all ideas emerge out of, and are therefore conditioned by, a particular cultural and historical context, we need to understand the situation in France in order to understand their ideas.  

The continental (French and German) tradition in philosophy is very different from the analytic (British and American), as we have said. To be a philosopher in the continental tradition is to make sweeping metaphysical claims about the nature of all existence, and to be an intellectual of any stature is to be a philosopher. For this reason the language employed in continental philosophy is highly technical and abstract, and tends to read like impenetrable jargon for people who approach it from the outside. In the empirical tradition, we like to talk about logic and objects. In the continental tradition, it’s the Idea that counts.

Further, European politics in general, and French politics in particular, are well to the left of British and American norms, and always have been. Since the time of Louis XVI France has had five republics, two monarchies (three if you count Louis’s), two empires, one socialist commune, and one fascist dictatorship. The French are no strangers to revolution or to socialism, and actual communists were prominent in both the resistance to Vichy and in the post-war government. In the 1950’s Charles de Gaul was determined to reassert control in the colonies – particularly in Algeria and in Vietnam. However, Marxist-nationalist guerrillas calculated (correctly) that the French grip had been irreparably weakened by two devastating wars against Germany, and that their moment for independence had come. By the early 60’s the French had been forced out of both countries. French leftists had opposed both wars from the beginning (the war in Algeria was especially brutal), and their opposition continued when the United States took France’s place in Vietnam. This situation, combined with the student movements which shook Europe and the United States in the late 60’s (and which verged on actual revolution in France), made for a very radical political climate. This was no less true among French intellectuals, who, since the time of Volatire and Rousseau, had always been far more active in public life than their British or American counterparts, and were therefore probably more sensitive to public opinion as well. However, the high tide of radicalism, both in France and in the United States, was reached in 1968. After that, the forces of order were back in control, and talk of revolution was more or less academic, in both senses of the word.

The perception that postmodernism is a doctrine of the extreme left, is more or less correct, at least in terms of its history, both because European politics is to the left of American, and also because we are probably more conservative now, on average, than people were in the 60’s. (This association has been contested, however, by critics who think postmodernism is actually an ideal epistemology for fascists. More on that later.) It is also fair to describe it as jargon-heavy, although anyone who has read Hegel will understand that this is not exactly a special feature of postmodernism. These features do not typically endear postmodernism to Americans, who like to think of themselves as plain-talking, freedom-loving, no nonsense pragmatists who saved the world from communism (thank you very much.) We therefore have to cross not just a philosophical, but also a historical and a cultural gap to make sense out of these theories – an effort which will occasionally (perhaps often) require deliberate perseverance.

Part of a Series on Postmodernism (V of XVI)

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