The modern university prizes imagination, theorizing, and experimentation. It is fascinated with the new, the possible, and the impossible. It is not satisfied with the way things are but dreams of the way things could be. The general public values the university primarily because it generates scientific and technological discoveries, which makes everyone richer, more comfortable, and healthier. And for the sake of these scientific and technological discoveries, the public tolerates activities, theories, and speculations it considers odd, crazy, or even dangerous. Most people trust experimental science because it can be tested against empirical reality and it has proven effective and useful. Insofar as other disciplines—history, sociology, psychology, language studies, political science, economics, and others—also submit their research for testing against publicly available data, most people will take them seriously.
However when academics theorize in ways that cannot be tested against real world data, where theories are supported only by other theories, ideas only by other ideas, and words by other words, the average person is mystified. Critics of such theorizing often characterized it as “gnostic” because of its similarity to the quasi-mythical, metaphysical speculations of “gnostic” thinkers in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Only those initiated into such systems truly understand the hidden nature of the world. Outsiders are ignorant and immoral. To understand the truth and become morally acceptable, outsiders must trust the true knowers and submit to penance and reeducation under their guidance. The resemblance to religious conversion is not an accident.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey devote their book, Cynical Theories to exploring the gnostic precincts of the modern university. And I want to share with you their analysis.
An Introduction for Inhabitants of the Real World
Anyone who watches the news, keeps up with movies, TV, and Netflix shows, or whose children attend public schools has heard something about race, gender, and identity that left them scratching their heads: racism, it is said, is not so much a personal attitude as a systemic order of society hidden to white people but obvious to people of color. Hence every corporation, university, and government agency must hire a diversity officer to examine the institution for hints of systemic racism. Gender comes in an infinite range of combinations of traits and feelings and has nothing to do with biological sex. Identity is created by the intersection of all the oppressed groups to which one belongs.
Meanwhile the torturous neologisms coined in university departments whose names end in “studies” have begun to appear in popular media:
heteronormativity, cisnormativity, gender performativity, intersectionality, patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity, homophobia, whiteness, inclusion, diversity, equity, critical theory, white privilege, white fragility, antiracism, white supremacy, problematize, decolonialization, subalterns, lived experience, hybridity, knowledges, social justice, research justice, climate justice, epistemic injustice, biological essentialism, ableism. fatphobia, queering, and more.
Unless you live in the theoretical world constructed by contemporary academia, you will most likely try to make sense of these terms in one of two ways. If you are feeling generous, you will understand them within the traditional framework of liberal tolerance, that is, as expressions of the desire for personal freedom from injustice and as criticisms of oppressive forces. Everyone accepts to one degree or another the basic rules for liberal society: “live and let live” or “you are free to do as you please as long as you don’t harm anyone else.” On the other hand, in your less generous moods, you may conclude that these expressions are crazy, insane, and unhinged: what in the world is gender performativity, hegemonic masculinity, and queering (as a verb)! Such ideas seem completely out of touch with the real world of hard facts and objective truths.
Making Sense of Nonsense
However, if you try to make sense of contemporary race, gender and identity talk within liberal categories or dismiss it as nonsense, you will misunderstand it. But there is another framework within which the “crazy talk” makes a sort of sense. Pluckrose and Lindsey call this framework simply “Theory,” always with a capital T. Theory is a shortened form of Critical Theory. Critical Theory is the product of sixty years of theorizing within humanities and various “studies” departments within modern universities.
According to Pluckrose and Lindsey, contemporary Theory is best understood as an applied and reified* form of postmodernism. Postmodernism came on the scene in the 1960s through the writings of three French thinkers: Michael Foucault, Jean-Françios Lyotard, and Jacque Derrida. The original postmodern perspective can be summarized in two principles and four major themes. Between 1990 and 2010, the original postmodernism underwent a transformation to what Pluckrose and Lindsey call “applied postmodernism.” And between 2010 and 2020, applied postmodernism became what our authors call “reified* postmodernism.” Hence Theory (or Critical Theory) is applied and reified postmodernism.
*To reify is to (mistakenly?) treat theoretical ideas first encountered in words as real things or states of affairs.
Two Principles of Postmodernism
The original postmodernism was a philosophy of complete despair, despair of attaining truth and building a truly just society. It despaired of science and progressive or utopian political movements. Not surprisingly, its two principles are the “knowledge principle” and the “political principle.”
The knowledge principle declares a “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism” (p. 31). We should dispense with any confidence that so-called scientific or common sense “knowledge” or “truth” corresponds to the way things really are. Knowledge is not a copy within our minds of external reality; it is a linguistic artifact constructing by the society in which we live. We live in a humanly constructed house of words, images, desires, rationalizations, expectations, and prejudices.
The political principle is the assertion “that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how” (p. 31). Societies are ordered and held together by an omnipresent and diffuse matrix of power exerted in the service of private and group interests. Power in some form is exerted in every relationship and interaction, so that everyone at all times is playing the role of oppressor or victim. Since what counts for knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, the ones with the most power construct “knowledges” that justify and reinforce their dominance.
Four Major Themes of Postmodernism
In keeping with its mood of despair, postmodernism employs a strategy of irony, cynicism, and playfulness—and sometimes intentional obscurity— to deflate the pretensions of science, undermine traditional morality, and upset accepted ideas of beauty. Indeed, postmodernism debunks all knowledge claims, because of their inherently oppressive nature. Its four major themes describe the ways in which postmodernism carries out its project of upsetting settled orders and creating suspicion of accepted truths.
According to Pluckrose and Lindsey, postmodernism (1) blurs boundaries. Boundaries that must not be crossed, either/or dichotomies, given identities, and fixed categories limit and oppress those placed into them. (2) Postmodernism views language with suspicion because it is a tool of oppression which the powerful use to construct prisons for their victims and castles for themselves. (3) Postmodernism denies that any culture is superior to any other, for such claims of superiority arise from and lead to domination. And (4), postmodernism repudiates the idea of the autonomous individual as a myth and disavows supposed universal ideas. Both of these notions, too, support the power structures that divide people into oppressors and victims.
Clearly, the overriding concern of postmodernism is freedom, not western notions of political freedom, the free market, or free will, but absolute freedom, freedom from any fixed category, theory, myth, narrative, metanarrative, meme, natural structure or law, stereotype, truth, or value. Its irony, cynicism, and playfulness are designed to deconstruct all confining socially constructed houses of knowledge, truth, and reality and keep all options open every moment. At the end of this series I will return to this thought.
Next Time: We will look at the two transformations by which the original postmodernism became Theory, that is, activist and reified postmodernism.