Power, Postmodernism, and Populist Politics

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Last Spring I left off in this blog with an exploration of what I called “The Uses of Objectivity.” That essay probed the inadvertent relationships between poststructural theory and the current climate of “alternative facts” and “post-truth” claims.  Since then I’ve run across an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that could have been written in response to mine, and while it actually wasn't, I'd like to continue the discussion a bit here.


The Chronicle essay I’m referring to here is Andrew J. Perrin’s “Stop Blaming Postmodernism for Post-Truth Politics.” That's an easy request to honor: certainly the supporters 0f such alt-fact politicians as Donald Trump can hardly be expected to have been influenced by —much less, have read—the texts of contemporary postmodern theory.  So by all means let's take postmodernism off the hook in this regard.  The question is not how postmodernism has affected what is often referred to as the "populist" politics of Trumpism; the question is how educators can best contest, in the classroom, the contentions of the post-truth world.  My position on this question is that educators who wish to do so would do well not to deconstruct, in a postmodern fashion, the fundamental grounds for things like scientific consensus, while Perrin, for his part, feels that we need more postmodernism in the face of the post-truth era because of the way that it exposes the ways in which "all claims, beliefs, and symbols are tied up with the structures of power and representation that give rise to them." 


Now, the originator of this postmodern approach to power/knowledge was, of course, Michel Foucault.  It is central to his entire notion of "discourse," which itself descended from his essentially poststructural (poststructuralism is an academic species of the larger cultural genus postmodernism) adaptation of the structuralist position that reality (and the knowledge thereof) is constructed by systems of signs.  That is to say, the signified, in the structuralist view, is not something detected outside the sign system: it is constituted by the sign system.  From here it is not a very large step to the poststructural position that whoever controls the sign system controls what counts as "reality," as "truth" itself. 


There is certainly no shortage of historical instances in which this vision of power/knowledge has indeed been played out.  The Third Reich, for example, rejected relativity theory as "Jewish physics," and that was that as far as Germany was concerned.  George Orwell, for his part, gave dramatic expression to this sort of thing in 1984: 2+2=5 if Big Brother says so.


Thus, it comes down to a simple question.   What is a more effective response to the post-truth claim, for example, that climate science is hoax: the position that all scientific claims are expressions of power/knowledge, or the position that concrete empirical evidence gets us closer to the truth of climate change than do the claims of power?  This is not a rhetorical question, because I do not suppose that everyone will agree with my own answer to it, which happens to be as simple as the question itself:  I prefer to oppose power/knowledge with objectively measurable data.  For me, reality is not subject to a referendum.


Interestingly, the late Edward Said—who helped put Foucault on the American literary-critical map in his book Beginnings—came to identify another problem that arises with respect to postmodern power theory when he criticized Foucault for effectively denying the element of human responsibility in power relations by treating power as a nebulous "formation" that is expressed socially and historically rather than being wielded by empowered individuals (which happens to be a poststructural view on power that parallels the structuralist position on the relationship between langue and parole).  Such a view could provide support for the many voters who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election due to their belief that both major parties expressed the same neoliberal and capitalist power formations.  I think that the aftermath of that election makes it pretty plain that individuals do wield power and in different ways, no matter what the current larger power/knowledge formation may be.


And just as interestingly, as I was putting the finishing touches on this blog, an essay by Mark Lilla appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying substantially the same thing: i.e., if students accept "the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life," they "will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it."  Now, two Humanities professors in agreement doth not a movement make, but it's heartening to see that my thoughts are shared by someone else.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.