Monday, February 15, 2021

American wokeism: the Cylons always return home

Earlier this morning, Seoul time, my buddy Mike (who's in the States) texted me a link to the following article:  "Prominent French Intellectuals Getting Woke To American Wokeism."  The article quotes a snippet from a New York Times article:

The threat is said to be existential. It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.

The threat? “Certain [social-science] theories entirely imported from the United States,’’ said President Emmanuel Macron.

After reading the article, I responded to Mike that it was too bad the article didn't note that "American wokeism has its roots in French-dominated postmodernism."  So much of the poison in American society today seeps outward from academe but originated outside the country.  I offered a bit of background about PoMo thinking in this post, but that post didn't delve into PoMo's mostly French (but partly German) origins.

Arguably, one of the major fathers of postmodern thought is Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche was among the first to drag humanity's focus away from truth and toward notions of power.  (Cf. Nietzsche's dichotomy between the will to truth and the will to power.)  It's thanks to Nietzsche, and the people who followed him, that we subscribe to power-oriented notions like "history is written by the victors."*  From this standpoint, power trumps all:  human society is best thought of in terms of power dynamics and imbalances of power.

French thinker Jacques Derrida focused on the latter by examining the nature of language, showing how words and concepts can often be grouped into pairs of opposites, with one half of the pair being the "more privileged" half, e.g., white/black or man/woman, in which "white" and "man" are the privileged halves.  These imbalances are reflected in society's various ills, injustices, and bigotries:  racism, classism, sexism, etc.  Derrida also contended that meaning was a vibratory thing, never settling onto any sort of semantic bedrock.  For him, there was and is no "transcendental signified," i.e., no ultimate ground of meaning from which all language springs.  Instead, words and concepts are defined only in terms of other words and concepts, and there is no "bottom."  This means that all the meaning we derive in our social interactions is a function of interpretation, so it's impossible to be sure whether any "text" we encounter is "true" or "real."  It doesn't help matters that, according to Derrida, so many words can mean the opposite of what they normally mean.  Derrida used the Greek word pharmakon to illustrate this point:  the word originally meant both "medicine" (as when we talk about pharmacies) and "poison."  (The Greek agios/άγιος means both "holy" and "unholy.")  The auto-antonymic nature of language was another reason to think of "text" as something elusive and dynamic, not something one could ever grasp firmly.

Michel Foucault concentrated more on raw power dynamics and how they affect social relationships.  It's thanks to Foucault that we have the notion of "the male gaze," which assaults or denigrates women**; the "panopticon," which is a metaphor for the all-seeing power of the state and how we conduct ourselves while being observed; and images of power and privilege such as the white lab coats associated with science, showing that science, far from being a democratic enterprise, is a hierarchical priesthood in which the lab-coated ones are the keepers and dispensers of knowledge, a role that gives scientists power.  (There's some truth to this, of course; look at climate science today, and the constant pressure to force people to believe "the science is settled."  Today's scientists really want you to just shut up, take a knee, and submit to their sovereign authority.  If we expand our view, we see that academe in general participates in a pecking-order dynamic where grad students serve as gophers for professors, and professors hate to have their authority questioned and challenged.)

We could talk about other French PoMo figures like Lacan and Baudrillard, but I see Derrida and Foucault as the two most outstanding figures, along with the looming shadow of Nietzsche in the background.  PoMo scholars will sneer and argue that I'm oversimplifying; I don't deny it.  But I expect nothing but sneers from that crowd, anyway, so... yawn.

Overall, postmodernism de-prioritizes the individual in favor of larger forces and systems.  PoMo radically emphasizes the importance of context, to the point where universals become anathema.  For PoMo thinkers, there is no such thing as "human nature" because that would mean human beings share a universal characteristic.  No:  radical contextualization means you can draw no insights about demographic Y by looking at the lives and loves and struggles of demographic X.  It's therefore racist for a white person to think he can relate, in any way, to "the black experience," whatever that phrase means.  It's also therefore sexist for a man to think he has the right to offer insights in the ongoing debate on abortion:  he's not a woman, so he can never know what it's like to be "inside" that situation.

PoMo ideas floated across the Atlantic, primarily from France and French academe, decades ago.  They settled into US humanities academe and found a comfortable home there.  PoMo thinking allied itself with Marxist leftism because it had the same focus on so-called "justice" issues—which is curious, given that PoMo supposedly avoids universal concepts like "justice."  But I find PoMo to be hypocritical, self-subverting garbage, always contradicting itself whenever it tries to make any points.  If the thrust of Nietzsche's thinking—and, subsequently, postmodernism's—was that "there is no truth," then such thinking immediately succumbs to the enthymeme that destroys it:  to say "There is no truth," you're basically saying, "It is true that there is no truth," i.e., you're making a truth-claim.  There's no escaping the fact that truth exists.  PoMo's rejection of universals also means that it can't talk meaningfully about equality and justice because these are concepts grounded in values, which leads us right back to universals.  (Properly speaking, a value can't be a value without being hegemonically universalist.  If Murder is wrong is a value, then that value applies to all humanity in all eras, not merely to one slice of humanity, temporarily, in one part of the world.)

All of this is to say that Emmanuel Macron has it wrong:  the wokeism currently wafting Franceward like a huge fart cloud across the Atlantic was originally farted out by Europe!  This puts me in mind of the rebooted TV series Battlestar Galactica:  in that show, humanity, in its folly, created intelligent, self-aware machines that resented their role as slaves; the machines rebelled, and in the subsequent bloody war, the machines—called Cylons—were ejected from the human colonies.  The Cylons disappeared for forty years; they suddenly reappeared, having radically evolved, and in a single, massive attack, they destroyed most of humanity.  Over four decades, the Cylons had transformed themselves from clunky, metallic robots to beings who were human down to the molecular level.  One gorgeous Cylon tells a traitorous human scientist, right before the attack, that "Humanity's children are returning home.  Today."  Well, the same is happening to France, I reckon:  the stale, rotten, noisome fruits of postmodernist thinking are returning home to the Old Country, and it's been so long that people like Macron have no idea where these stupid ideas originally came from.


*The quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill, who was the very opposite of a postmodernist, but the sentiment certainly predates him, and it definitely found a home in postmodernist thinking.

**To clarify:  the concept of the male gaze is, in fact, more associated with feminism than it is with Foucault, who coined the term "gaze" (le regard) to refer to a particular power dynamic in which the gazer adopts a position of superiority over the thing being gazed at.  The specific term "male gaze" is a riff off Foucault's work; the phrase is actually attributed to John Berger, an English art critic who wrote Ways of Seeing.  

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Foucault's work has led feminists to a schism between those who subscribe to a simplistic view that the patriarchy is at the root of women's problems, and those who agree with Foucault that power dynamics are a swirling, eddying force pushing in many directions at once, thus making it unclear that a reductive explanation of the plight of women is the correct one.


John Mac said...

I read this yesterday and meant to comment then. I always learn so much here at Hairy Chasms. I've never really thought much about post-modernism theories and their relationship to "wokeness". But the idea that individualism must be eliminated to achieve the left's objective of a new world order definitely resonates. I probably won't live long enough to witness the outcome of this ideological battle. I wouldn't want to live in that world anyway. Hell, I don't want to live in the USA ever again already.

Kevin Kim said...

A Trump-hating friend of mine recently wrote to say that he wished he could have been living somewhere else over the past four years. Heh.

John Pepple said...

When I was young, Nietzsche was considered an existentialist, and now he's thought of as a postmodernist. I wonder what he will be thought of fifty years from now.

Kevin Kim said...

One wonders. Thanks for stopping by!