Postmodernism is often the subject of derision when I hear it mentioned in academic circles. Mainstream social scientists, in my experience, treat it as unreasonable and fanciful. This did not lead me to dismiss it; if anything, this suggested to me that it could hold some value. Unfortunately, compared to Marxist social theory, postmodernism has limited value as an approach to critical analysis. Postmodernist works offer insights critical theorists would do well to consider, but ultimately, the inability of postmodernism to ground its conclusions in reality and its aversion to moral principles robs it of its emancipatory potential.
For the postmodernist, “truth” is relative, a product of the power relations of a given moment. What we think we know today will be changed as society evolves. Therefore, it is pointless to take absolute positions on social issues, and a detached approach to social science investigation is impossible. Social analysis can only be done through interpretation and deconstruction, investigating dominant discourse. In his Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida describes logocentrism, in which particular norms and values are privileged over others through the imposition of meaning and the fixing of identities. The postmodernist project thus becomes the dissection of the prevailing discourse, whose interests it serves and how we could be freed from its dogma.
The notion that people should not take assertions for granted has an obvious benefit, and investigating the operation of discourse and language is important (and is basically what my dissertation is). What is problematic, however, is the postmodernist ontology: everything is filtered through language. There is no wider social world, and consequently, no basic human rights or values. Derrida connects Marxism with the establishment of authoritarian governments and abuses of state power, and as such, a furtherance of the dominance he seeks to challenge. He acknowledges the revolutionary mission of Marxism, but at the same time positions himself as anti-Marxist in opposing any attempt to engineer the reordering of society according to Marxist principles.
This flaw of postmodernism is actually what makes it so appealing to critical theorists dissatisfied with Marxism: there is none of the determinism or reductionism of orthodox Marxist critiques. As there is no absolute truth, there is no underlying social conflict necessitating the overthrow of the status quo; there is no class war because that is an ideological construction rather than a definitive fact. If everything is contingent, we should shift our attention to redefining how we perceive gender, the environment, and cultural identity. The hegemonic order we live in is not set by the ruling class or even any central object; it is a “game” open to anyone, and radical changed can be achieved through changes to the dominant discourse. The social world is only discursive; there is no reality other than what has been linguistically constructed.
This is more clearly asserted by Laclau and Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Like Derrida, the fixing of identity is problematic and must be replaced by a shift toward a more pluralist, libertarian society. Politics is entirely contingent, totally divorced from social groupings and the material world. The objection to this is people obviously have material interests that transcend discourse and language, and these material conditions no doubt create parameters on what people can articulate. Any Marxist will concede that the ruling class promotes an ideology that fosters a false consciousness that obscures peoples’ actual interests; this is what is meant by the Marxist superstructure. Yet, there must be an economic base beneath that superstructure, that influences the essence of that ideological articulation. Is it really plausible that the different ideologies throughout history (and the different power relationships associated with them) were contingent arrangements of history, the result of virtually random alignments of wealth, gender and religion? If cultural hegemony exists, it is probably not a design without an architect, an imposing structure without a strong foundation. That postmodernism rejects such a foundation leaves its usefulness as critical theory inert.
That critical scholarship should be more interpretive and concerned with knowledge as a product of the social construction of reality is a good point, but not one whose realization requires the acceptance of all postmodern tenets. In fact, the wishfulness of postmodernism that there are no structural obstacles to progressive change makes it a boon to neoliberalism, as it furthers the illusion that such change can be obtained only through discursive practice. As a result, we see greater instances of online activism, touting the causes of identity politics. While this has been greatly beneficial in creating awareness for feminism and greater rights and recognition of people of color, it has also buttressed the tendency of comfortable middle class liberals to prefer “easy activism” — activism that makes them feel good but does little to initiate the difficult process of breaking out of false consciousness and working toward meaningful, constructive change. Postmodernism does well to highlight the metaphysical aspects of critical theory, but its lack of a basis in material reality renders it too detached from real, historical analysis.