The Death of Postmodernism

26 december 2017

“False News” and the Future of the West

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associated Professor in the Department of History, Indiana University, South Bend, USA.

Resume: The masses became increasingly unruly and unwilling to be led in a “postmodernist” way. The elite cannot accept this. Thus, it was proclaimed that Western “postmodernism” had been overtaken by Russian “postmodernism,” even more cunning and sophisticated.

Politicians can sometimes make absolutely outrageous statements without even realizing it. This was, for example, the case with Emmanuel Macron, French President. During a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in France in May 2017, a Russian journalist asked Macron how his administration treated journalists and why journalists from Sputnik and Russia Today were treated in a discriminatory way. Macron refuted this accusation. He stated that his government provided free access to all honest and faithful journalists. Still, they should convey to their readers and viewers truth and not falsifications; not a lie which just appeared to be trusted.

Macron implied that he was defending the tradition of the French Enlightenment. The only difference was that while the great minds of the Enlightenment fought against prejudice and superstition, present-day paragons of the Enlightenment fought against cynical, relativistic fluidity of lies, or “fake news.” And he stated openly, in the presence of his Russian guest, that it was Russia which was producing these relativistic lies, so foreign to the Western tradition in general and the French tradition in particular.


What Macron said would seem as an absolute outrage to top French intellectuals of the past, should they be present at the President’s speech. Upon listening to the President say that “truth” shall prevail against “non-truth”/“false news,” Jacques Derrida, possibly in front of the guests, would have noted with a sarcastic smile that “truth” was “a text” which one could “deconstruct” in any way as he/she wished. Jean Baudrillard would have been in full agreement and quipped that “truth” was absolutely meaningless, plainly because what naïve people called “truth” was nothing but a combination of signs and symbols; reality/“truth” is virtual and relativistic. Jacques Lacan, with his écrit “The Signification of the Phallus” in the hand—he believed that one of his earliest works was still relevant and he wanted to sign it and give it as a gift either to the President or his wife—would have been amazed that the President ignored sexuality in his definition of “truth.”

Sexuality is something which all educated or not well-educated Frenchmen are aware of. It would not be surprising, he could add, that the works of Marquis de Sade are regarded as great contributions to the French and world culture. He could also have added that his major works, such as, for example, Philosophy in the Bedroom are falsely seen as pornographic treatises. As a matter of fact, it is a manifestation of sexual and implicitly social liberation of freedom-loving libido against sexual-political despotism of the ancien régime. Consequently, the good Marquis’ liberation from the Bastille could be seen as the beginning of the French Revolution, in which freedom-loving libido overcame the despotic superego. It was not surprising that France bought for huge sums the original of one of the Marquis’ texts, which he composed while suffering in prison, and sums were eagerly allocated, regardless of serious budgetary problems. Erotica/sex is not just a quite important component of reality/“truth,” but also by definition relativistic, and he, Lacan, failed to comprehend why the President could not understand this.

 Michel Foucault, standing nearby and patting his bald scalp, would have noted with sarcasm that “truth” was intimately related to power; those who control “truth” control power, and those who control power control “truth.” Louis Althusser, who would be temporarily released from the insane asylum (where he spent some time after killing his wife) for such an important occasion, would have added that power was also an abstraction and knowledge/“truth” depended on class; the oppressed, as Marx stated, have their own “truth,” which is absolutely different from the “truth” of the elite. The President should read Antonio Gramsci to understand that the notion of abstract “truth” is just how the elite rule over helpless masses. Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov, both Bulgarian ex-pats and undoubtedly anxious to follow the mainstream of their adopted country, would have fully supported the French luminaries.

It would be absolute consensus that Macron is an idiot and a possibly dangerously reactionary idiot and should be removed from office so as not to damage France’s reputation. The idea would be wholeheartedly embraced on the other shores of the Atlantic, especially in the departments of women’s and ethnic/black studies. Here, the folk would note that “truth” has clearly gender and race relevance. It is much more important than the class or social position, for Caucasian men would always have a privileged position, whereas women and black/Latino persons would always be discriminated against, harassed and subjected to violence. The notions of “truth” and the principles of the Enlightenment are not just outdated but clearly reactionary. Indeed, the Enlightenment in the U.S. justified slavery and phallocracy, in which females were reduced to the role of “sexual object” and “baby-making machines.”

They most likely would have been supported by such famous American post-modernists as Susan Sontag. All would agree that Macron is a reactionary idiot, should be removed immediately, and all discussion about the importance of abstract “truth” and the tradition of the Enlightenment should be stopped.

Still, now Macron’s statement found no dissenting voice, either in France or in Europe in general. Moreover, defense of the Enlightenment and “truth” as an abstract category and not a relativistic construction became quite fashionable in the U.S. There was even a critique of post-modernism.


Many prominent Western politicians and public intellectuals, especially American, have emerged as passionate defenders of the tradition of rationalism and implicitly/explicitly the traditions of the Enlightenment. This defense emerges in the context of fighting “fake news,” the spread of which has had devastating implications for Western democracy. And Moscow acquired here the almost superhuman power to change “discourse” and consequently reality in the Kremlin’s interest. The defense of the Enlightenment became quite a popular topic in the U.S.. Hillary Clinton, for example, made a passionate call to defend the Enlightenment in her commencement speech at Wellesley College, her alma mater. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate from the prestigious Columbia University, made a strong statement in defense of the Enlightenment. The elitist liberal Atlantic also admitted with regret that the U.S. was moving away from the principles of the Founding Fathers, and the process was gaining momentum.

It was not just the liberals/left who became alarmed. Conservative journalist James Kirchick “speaks of a ‘Europe unmoored from the Enlightenment values it brought to the world’.” One could assume that we are seeing the battles of the 18th century—the struggle of the Enlightenment, with its call for the rule of reason and truth—against its intellectual parents and grandparents: medieval prejudice and religious superstition. Still, the “parents”—the proponents of the Enlightenment—are not in a fight with medievalism but with their child—“postmodernism,” the producers of “false news,” the spirits of relativistic fluidity, which made the notion of “truth” as an objective and fixed category basically irrelevant.

Macron, Hillary Clinton and scores of their supporters asserted that the cynical relativism of postmodernity, the germ of “post-truth,” had emerged in the heart of Eurasia/Russia and then brought to the innocent West by cynical Machiavellians in the Kremlin, in much the same way the germs of the bubonic plague were brought to Europe from the heart of Eurasia in the 14th century. Still, as was noted, the origins of “post-truth” postmodernist relativism was not Moscow’s kitchens, where Soviet dissident intellectuals exercised their intellectual prowess, or even less so the offices of post-Soviet spin masters, like Vladislav Surkov, but the country of Monsieur Macron, and from here it spread to the U.S., where it played a much stronger role than in France. Why has “postmodernism”/“post-truth” become so popular in the West, and especially in the U.S.?

In the beginning of its history, approximately the late 1950s and 1960s, postmodernism was born in France, and originally was the ideology of the rebellion of intellectuals against the prevailing norms of Western democratic capitalism. It also reflected playfulness, relativistic fluidity and, in a way, a cynical streak, traceable back to Voltaire. Still, transitioned to the U.S., it soon became an ideology which addressed the needs of racial minorities and women and became the ideological justification for “affirmative action.”

Officially, the law implied that race/gender should be just one of the considerations for hiring in higher education. Still, it soon became almost the only criteria. It was proclaimed that women, and especially blacks, could provide a “unique” approach to practically all branches of science, and only experts could truly understand that. In a broader sense, it implied that higher education should be absolutely free from external control and should appeal to society only when it needed material benefits, ranging from tax exemptions to direct subsidies. From academia, with its mostly leftist, or, to be precise, quasi-leftist agenda, “postmodernism” moved to business. One could assume that it happened approximately in the 1970s, when the auto industry—and related branches of the real economy—started to experience visible problems. At that point, postmodernism provided the justification for the notion of “service” economy, which was believed to be the sole driver of economic growth. It especially benefited the financial sector, e.g. Wall Street, insurance, etc.

One could interpret “postmodernism” in many ways. Still, one must be clear: the domination of relativistic “post truth” in Western, especially American, society, was not due to postmodernist intellectual sophistication and allure of the French culture. The reason for postmodernist domination from Left to Right, from academia to business, was mostly down to earth: it was the way that the elite of all stripes maintained and upheld its interests, at the expense of society and plainly duped it.

Postmodernist cynicism and relativistic playfulness was stuff for internal consumption: for the masses, the “truth” was not relative but absolute; there was only one “truth.” For the public, the elite had followed the dictums of the Enlightenment and provided “the truth” which was related to the notion of public interests. And the very fact that the hoi polloi, seen mostly as benign idiots, indeed started to question this premise and assumed that “postmodernist” fluidity was the way to deceive them, is what alarmed the elite considerably.


The U.S. and most other Western elites have ruled by “discursive” manipulation for a long time. The manipulative way of rule is directly related to the image of the populace as a bit of a childlike creature, and the way that American elites see the masses could be found in some American movies.

One of these movies was called Swing Vote, and it was shown to the general public on the eve of Obama’s election. The major protagonist of the movie is a typical American. And his image is absolutely different from the image of Americans widespread in dominant discourse and even different from the image of Americans in the minds of those who have no love for the U.S. Whether one loves or hates the U.S., the image of the average American implies that he is full of energy, desire and predatory elan. In some of these negative images, the desire for success, at all costs, money, and fame is also connected with sex drive.

Nothing of this type can be found in the movie’s hero. He has absolutely no possessive instincts, and survives with a minimum of comfort. He does not even have a permanent home and lives in a trailer. His needs are reduced to the biological minimum. He has no ambitions. He actually does not need society at all, or any other human being. At the same time, he is not depressed, but absolutely content, almost happy. His only entertainment is fishing in a small river, and therefore he has no other interests but the study of bites and hooks. He has zero aggressiveness; he is almost devoid of sex drive. He sired the daughter to whom he is really attached, but his wife has abandoned him. Still, he has no girlfriend or any other sexual outlet, and this does not bother him at all.

He looks more like Platon Karataev, the protagonist from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In Tolstoy’s view, Karataev represents the sort of happy, self-contained “noble savage”—the Russian peasant and his happy, selfless and uncontroversial life are implicitly juxtaposed to the life of the other characters of the book: highly educated, wealthy members of the elite, who are unhappy because of their ambitions and doubts. The average American—and this movie’s protagonist represents the average American—is actually a nice chap. He has absolutely no interest in the election, and it is only the urging of his young daughter that leads him to cast a vote, or at least make an attempt to do this. With all his fine characteristics, the protagonist of the movie is an absolute idiot. He is the representative of the average American, a political and intellectual imbecile who is unable to engage in basic analysis and even possess common sense. He could believe in any “constructed reality” which members of the elite can provide him, and accept this “constructed reality” without questioning. The hoi polloi are idiots. At the same time, they are in general peaceful and not pretentious idiots, and no violence is needed to control them; they could well be compared to the protagonists in Orwell’s Animal Farm (or an actual farm). Here, the animals trust the farmer, and he usually does not need violence. The animals willingly follow the farmer, even when he leads them to the butcher. When the animals finally realize their destination, it is too late.

This system worked until recently. The reason was simple: the flock was well-fed, especially after WWII, when the U.S. was indeed the richest and most productive country in the world.

And it was those who were called the “old Left” who discovered this aspect of American society. All of them were émigrés from Europe, and for this particular reason had sharper eyes than natives. As outsiders, they saw what native Americans were not able to see, or plainly had no desire to see. Herbert Marcuse could be a good example. An émigré from Germany, he watched Germans under the Nazis who had been supposedly brainwashed. He undoubtedly was aware of Orwell’s Animal Farm, presumably written about the Stalinist USSR. Still, when he wrote his One-Dimensional Man, he dealt neither with Germans under Nazi rule nor the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. The one-dimensional man was a man of the USA, the average American as he was represented in Swing Vote. Still, there was a difference between the One-Dimensional Man and the hero of Swing Vote. The hero of Swing Vote was not just oblivious to wealth, but could live in abysmal conditions; he could actually be a happy chap, even living in semi-starvation. One-Dimensional Man was easily led by the elite, the “constructors of reality,” because he was well-fed, and the decline in his living standard was not visible for some time. Still, the economic problems became too serious to be “deconstructed,” and this led to Trump.


As the author wrote this piece, the attacks on Trump continued. The accusations against him were manifold and, of course, the Kremlin’s nefarious role was clear. In the view of his critics, Trump was the manifestation of evil and almost a fascist dictator, if not a Hitler than a Mussolini, and those who bitterly oppose him believe that a dictatorship is in the making. This was, for example, the view of Professor Snyder from the prestigious Yale University, who apparently played the role of Cicero or Cato, warning fellow Americans about the coming Caesar or Catiline.

Still, a closer look at Trump indicates that he did not do anything that any other Republican president would not have done. He was not very different from them, probably with the exception of his bombast. The reason for the fury is quite different. American “sovok,” the animals in Animal Farm, rejected the “constructed reality” supplied by the “farmers” from the Left and the Right, and some of the “animals,” including those with sharp horns, started to make dangerous moves and calls for violence. One should remember that during the recent presidential campaign, Trump’s supporters shouted, “Lock her up!” referring to Hillary Clinton. Some of them demanded her execution.

This call for violence could well be ignored; violence is excluded from the lives of most white Americans. Black ghettos in several cities do explode in violent riots from time to time. One of the most recent, in New Orleans, transformed the entire city into a war zone. Some parts of American cities are indeed war zones, in a permanent sort of way. In Chicago, for example, hundreds of murders were committed in just one year. The loss of life was bigger than annual American troop losses in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Still, all of the outbreaks of violence were mostly the handiwork of blacks, and most murders in Chicago and other cities are committed in small areas of black ghettos, where the level of violence is indeed extremely high.

Most white Americans, even if they live in abject poverty, eschew violence and behave like the hero in Swing Vote. Most of them also believe in the system, the press, and TV. They also believe, at least through most of the U.S. history, that what they saw on the screen or read was not “constructed reality,” constructed to suit the interests of the elite, but was the truth, immutable and unchangeable.

But now the populace started to question this; some indicated violent thoughts. Some actually engaged in violence as the events in Charlottesville demonstrated. Their images emerged on the screen as people full of hatred. And this was quite different from the image of the benign, good-natured idiot in Swing Vote; the “farm animals” expressed their predilection for violence. And this was the real danger. One might state here that the people in Washington could be in more danger than those in Moscow or Beijing, plainly because they do not have well-oiled machinery of repression and control.


While the media, both American and European, especially those on the left, presented Trump as the embodiment of evil, and/or plainly a paranoid person, Trump did not do anything that would not have been done by most Republican presidents, or actually any president. Even his vulgarity subsided as time progressed. While elected by “deplorables,” he hardly represents their interests. The industrial revival and the rise of the real economy did not happen. The proposed tax cut would just benefit the rich, increase the national debt, leading the country to this or that form of bankruptcy in the future, and would bring no benefit to the “deplorables.”

Fundamentally, Trump is not very different from the vast majority of presidents. Similarly to them, he represents the elite and hardly does anything that would benefit the majority. He also did not do anything that would challenge any important aspect of the existing socio-political order. The elite should be content. Still, the fear and despising of Trump, shared not just by the Left but also by a considerable segment of conservatives, was due to the fact that Trump was elected against the will of the elite and “deplorables” did not follow the “constructed reality” proposed by the elite. They actually discarded the notion of “constructed reality” and were in search of what they regarded as “truth,” even though it could also be just another type of “constructed reality.”

The danger of this new “constructed reality” is that the ideology of “Trumpism” is quite different from what is professed, or at least applied in practice by Trump. The critics of “Trumpism” and “Trumpists” pointed to their hatred of blacks, disrespect to women, etc. Still, they do not want to acknowledge that both the hatred of blacks and immigrants and attacks on the notion of ‘sexual harassment’ was important for “Trumpists” because all of these are symbols of the elite: from bankers to university professors, from insurance companies to government bureaucrats in Washington. And contrary to the protagonist of Swing Vote, the masses became not just distrustful of “constructed reality,” created either by the Left or the Right, but became increasingly predisposed to violence.

What makes things worse is that this happened not just in the U.S., but also in Europe. The populace started to realize that what the elite had fed them was not the unshakeable truth in the tradition of the 18th century, but just those “truths” which a certain group of elites deployed to defend its socio-economic interests. The populace also started to question even the very notion of Western democracy, rooted in the traditions of the 18th century. In the views of the masses, what they saw was nothing but a corrupt oligarchy, the members of which, while pretending to fight each other, actually live in perfect “symbiosis” at the expense of the masses. The masses became angry. Consequently, the old motto vox populi vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) became dangerous “populism” which threatened the elite’s socio-economic well-being. Western elites, which ruled in a “postmodernist” way for generations, are unwilling to accept the reason for changes in the popular view: the precipitous decline in living standards which could not be talked over by means of “constructed reality.”

The masses became increasingly unruly and unwilling to be led in a “postmodernist” way. The elite cannot accept this. Thus, it was proclaimed that Western “postmodernism” had been overtaken by Russian “postmodernism,” even more cunning and sophisticated than the Western variation. Moreover, the Western elite from Macron to Hillary Clinton proclaim that “postmodernist” relativism or utter cynicism have nothing to do with the West. It was not born in France, proliferated in the U.S. and spread globally due to the U.S.’s global predominance, but was born in Russia. At the same time, the West was always attached to the principles of the Enlightenment, with emphasis on “truth,” “reason,” and “democracy,” which the conniving Putin tried to challenge. Both in European capitals and Washington, the ruling elites believe that they can regain trust in their institutions and “constructed reality.” Would they be able to restore innocence? One could doubt this.


What is the result of these changes in the political mood? The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, could provide some clues. Ivan, one of the major protagonists of the novel, was in a way a “postmodernist.” He was a relativist Nietzschean, whose philosophy became quite fashionable in Russia and Europe. Ivan was actively interacting with his adopted brother with the characteristic name of Smerdyakov, or stinky one. Smerdyakov was not bright, had no education, and despised everything Russian.

Smerdyakov, in many ways, symbolized the populace, and implicitly could choose two tutors. Besides Ivan’s relativism, he could be led by Alyosha, the Christian-type figure, who opposed Ivan. Alyosha assumed that there is one truth and fixed values. Still, Smerdyakov chose Ivan, who preached that “There is no God and therefore everything is permissible.” Smerdyakov internalized Ivan’s beliefs, followed his relativistic “postmodernism” and, as a consequence, he kills his adopted father. Ivan was horrified and, as one might assume, not only because of the nature of the crime but also because he, most likely, understood that Smerdyakov could do the same to him.

Quite possibly, Ivan regretted his preaching and could have passionately preached that he was not a relativist “postmodernist,” a Nietzschean, but promoted “truth,” and Smerdyakov had plainly misread his dictums. Still, there was no way back: Smerdyakov’s “postmodernism” and deep distrust of what he saw around him were irreversible. From now on, he had no internal restraints. He would avoid being engaged in any kind of crime, only because of the fear of direct punishment. He could well entertain the idea of killing Ivan. And if he did not do this, it was only because Ivan looked stronger. Still, Smerdyakov could assume that at some point, Ivan would be sick and unable to resist. At that point, Smerdyakov could bump him off, rob him of his possessions, and run.

The same could be said about Western “Ivans.” They could proclaim that they preached nothing but “trust” and blasted Putin or anybody else for spreading “fake” news. Still, the era of innocence and belief in the institutions, if not over, are at least seriously eroded. Yet if the economy will limp along, nothing will happen. But if the economy were to plunge, either because of “natural” explosions of huge bubbles, or because of major wars (e.g. with North Korea), the end of “postmodernism” could be quick, and possibly violent. The exact configuration of events and their implication for the U.S. and the global community could not be predicted, for history is a very creative or, to be precise, an erratic person. Still, one could assume that history in such a case could indeed move backward. Yet it could move not back to the 18th century, as Macron, Clinton and scores of others hope, but hit a much deeper and darker past as the history of the last and current centuries have demonstrated well enough.

} Page 1 of 5