A Postmodern Worldview or, How “Lamenting the ‘loss of meaning’ in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative”.

Today I read a somewhat interesting post at Pajamas Media by former academic and current Hoover Fellow (a conservative think tank at Stanford) Victor Davis Hanson, a somewhat well-known neoconservative who was a consistent and avid supporter of the foreign policy practiced during the Bush administration by such luminaries as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and others. That is, America ought to aggressively defend its national interests with preemptive wars and other efforts to evidence our “hard power”, to borrow a term from Joseph Nye, a Harvard academic who pioneered the use of such terms as “hard and soft power” about two decades ago and more recently in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, which took the international studies/politics crowd by storm a little more than a half decade ago. Interestingly enough, I also just found out that Nye testified before Congress in early March; a full transcript of his testimony can be found here. Anyway, Hanson’s article made a bit more sense to me after I read a bio of him and more fully understood his career’s trajectory and the evolution of his politics. I already knew that Pajamas Media was a mostly conservative site, but upon further research I found out that The Nation’s David Corn serves on their Media Board and that other Board Member’s are less ideologically limited as I had originally supposed.

Anyway, back to the piece by Hanson. From the get-go Hanson attempts to inhabit with derision the mindset of a postmodern politician, in this case Barack Obama. He deploys with varying degrees of success many of the overused and hackneyed terms that form the traditional lexicon of academic work, particularly in the humanities. He pulls off this parrot act far better than many others, probably because of his own background that involved a tenure as a professor of classics, but his distaste for the language and the people who use it inevitably limits the effectiveness of his critique. He also, perhaps out of necessity, briskly proceeds from one idea to the next and relies unfortunately upon conservative stereotypes about academia and Liberalism that at this juncture are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of date. He blithely draws parallels between aspects of what he might describe as radical Liberalism and the primacy of postmodernist thinking at its most nefarious, as if one directly creates the other and vice versa. He seems to infer that Postmodernist thinking has contributed to a “reparations” mindset among the supposed underclass that blames the wealthy for all of their problems assigns a degree of guilt to anyone who has “made it.”

Hanson’s tendency to parrot the “postmodern subject” while simultaneously trying to undermine those viewpoints also makes for a confusing read, as the two inclinations seem to be at war with one another and the piece constantly seems to be on the verge of collapsing into unintelligibility, an aspect that oddly enough makes it quite easy to read in such a manner that it hardly challenges any of the assumptions you went into your reading with, depending on what those assumptions were. For instance, one can get through it breezily with your viewpoint that socialist, elitist liberals want to take your money, apologize to terrorists, pay out reparations to an undeserving underclass of (mostly) non-white people, completely rewrite history and institute a diffuse set of postmodern guidelines for living that would do away with any objective truths, any moral or ethical mandates and incourage the abortion of babies as they are leaving the womb. Or, like me, you can read the piece, somewhat appreciate Hanson’s ability to use academic language in ostensibly grammatically correct and occasionally amusing ways and still be disappointed that he reverts to such a simplistic overview of postmodernism and the way it has supposedly molded a generation of thinkers into wishy-washy politics that eschew any moral or ethical commitments, while also imperiling our country through a distorted worldview that seeks to make our enemies our friends and our friends our enemies.

Okay, in summation, Hanson believes that postmodernism’s stranglehold has delivered to us a kind of Lefty politics that disavows empiricism in favor of the comforts of vague relativism that is nonetheless geared towards a constant rejection of normativity in all of its forms. The ascension of the notion of “social constructs” has removed all semblances of a reality based politics from the equation, leading to a group of people whose standard bearer, Barack Obama, has made a habit out of relativizing and apologizing for the behavior of people like Ahmadinejad while demonizing Benjamin Netanyahu.

Anyway, I find the whole underlying premise of Hanson’s piece wildly disingenuous or, perhaps more generously, misinformed and poorly conceived. Hanson takes one aspect of what could be described as one mere sliver (postmodernism) of the academic world, that is, identity politics, and extrapolates from that a whole series of political positions that he claims define the presidency of Barack Obama and, by extension, contemporary Liberal politics. Never mind that he hardly approaches postmodernism at its most expansive and most general, an approach that his project seems to require. No mention is made of the primacy of language beyond a couple of snarky asides meant to instantly discredit any such concept. In a discussion of a vast topic that itself began as a theory about language and knowledge he conveniently elides the most fundamental qualities of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument, which could certainly be fruitfully and intelligently brought to bear on modern politics in a non-ideological manner. But, Hanson would argue, postmodernism is inherently ideological and its mere usage presupposes certain ideas about the world that would undermine any potential insights offered up by an analysis of “postmodern” politics. What was a respectable movement, modernism, became the incoherent and morally repugnant mess called postmodernism, something I bet Hanson wishes had never come about, as if modernism somehow could have happened without postmodernism eventually supplanting it. A Thousand Year Modernism! His elevation of modernism is a bit puzzling as well, given that modernism in some ways gave birth to totalitarianism and fascism and existed at the same time as some of the world’s most awful historical periods.

Anyway, the lack of nuance of Hanson’s piece is slightly hidden by the language he uses and by his almost indirect critiques, giving off an illusion of complex ideas that nonetheless fit quite neatly into a singular and straightforward political statement that reeks suspiciously of a timeworn conservative talking point that positions the liberal elites against the real, blue blooded working class Americans. It’s Sarah Palin with a thesaurus.


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