With articles and books hailing a post-truth future multiplying across the English-speaking world, many attribute this change to ‘postmodernism’ or, even more loosely, to ‘French theory’. Not only is this historically inaccurate it completely misunderstands the project of the philosophers of 1960s Paris writes Tom Eyers.
Michiko Kakutani has a fearsome reputation as a reviewer of fiction at the New York Times. She recently published a book, ‘The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump’, that rehearses the no-doubt controversial case that truth is something to be valued. In the course of defending her position, Kakutani indicts what she calls ‘postmodernism’. It has devalued science, she says; it has reduced everything to narrative; and, ultimately, it has helped lead us to Trump. It is only the latest of a slew of books to suggest that our contemporary ills can be traced to the writings of a few philosophers and cultural critics, almost all of them working in Paris in the 1960s. It is the work of these philosophers – Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and others – that have been tagged as ‘postmodern’, and that have been arraigned for crimes against the present.
But what does ‘postmodern’ mean? It is, most obviously, a period designation, a fact that has often eluded its critics, who have tended to take an historical diagnosis as if it were a battle cry. The boundaries of modernity, meanwhile, are hotly contested, but among historians, sociologists, and political theorists, there is a consensus of sorts that the post-war compact between industrial labor and capital in the rich North ended with the Reagan administration in the US, and the Thatcher regime in the UK. What followed is a very different economic and social reality: a ‘post-modern’ economy hitched not to production, but to consumption and consumer debt; a culture that had finally smudged the line between high and low art; and an explosion of media such that the public sphere had been increasingly privatized, unable to produce even the illusion of a shared culture.
This movement is better characterized as a late if vital expression of the modernist impulse
I labor this point about ‘postmodernism’ because the argument I will make now about what has been called ‘post-structuralism’, and what I have presumed to call instead ‘post-rationalism’, assumes its importance only in the face of a significant misunderstanding, one that the Right in the United States have exploited to no end: namely, that the term ‘postmodern’ has any application to the efflorescence of philosophical, literary, and political experimentation that characterized intellectual life in Paris in the run up to the riots and strikes of May 1968.
In my understanding, this movement is better characterized as a late if vital expression of the modernist impulse, this to be understood in all of its literary, philosophical, and political valences, and in light of all of its uneasy political contradictions. Jacques Lacan’s ‘Écrits’, for all their political ambivalence, are kin to Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ but also to Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, and indeed to Adorno’s ‘Aesthetic Theory’.
Jacques Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’, moreover, published in 1967, was a strong late descendent of Rousseau, Hegel, Darwin, Mallarmé, Marx, Ferdinand de Saussure, André Breton, and Gertrude Stein. In its startlingly ambitious argument for a wholesale reconceptualization of the Western philosophical tradition, it had little enough to do with any putatively ‘post-modern’ abdication of exactitude or truth. Nonetheless, it subjected these latter imperatives to appropriate philosophical scrutiny, in view of radically changed historical circumstances, such a context making superfluous, if not entirely inoperative, classical philosophical commitments to transcendence. If such a task must always in part fail, Derrida suggested, the attempt opens somewhat-new margins, conducive to somewhat-new thinking. Whatever postmodernism might be, it would seem if nothing else to announce the moment at which such modernist experiments have finally run out of steam, have themselves been outrun by history. Whether one buys such a diagnosis of our times or not, it is surely incoherent to assign the term ‘postmodern’ to such a fecund, if late, eruption of modernist experimentation.
Why, then, did I call my second book ‘Post-Rationalism’? I hoped to show how what had been received in the Anglophone world as a hyper-textualist, even solipsistic, movement, one tagged as ‘post-structuralism’, in fact had one of its signal sources in a distinctively modern and rationalist, if dissident, program in French philosophy of science, one typified by the work of Georges Canguilhem, Gaston Bachelard, Jean Cavaillès, and Alexandre Koyré. Against the empiricisms and positivisms that had taken hold of Anglophone thinking about science, the French had instead focused on the animating role of concepts in helping to construct, instead of simply trying to passively ‘understand’, the objects of scientific apprehension. The needle that Canguilhem and others tried to thread involved avoiding both an idealist constructivism, whereby scientific knowledge is just another participant in a Nietzschian bid for dominance, and an equally idealist empiricism, whereby the object of scientific scrutiny, itself transparent, is assumed to be available for presuppositionless inspection, at least given the right experimental conditions.
Against this, the French ‘historical epistemologists’, as they have become known, sought to trace the contested, historically specific fashion in which different sciences came to distil their objects, such objects always to be understood as composites of the material world, the ideological assumptions from which the scientist can never entirely be free, and the labor of the scientist herself. Importantly, these thinkers often remarked upon the formative resistance of the material to its conscription into understanding. If the resulting tussle between intransigence and capture, the fixity of definition and the freedom from it, previewed in a different context some of the terms of political revolt that exploded in France in the late 1960s, it is unsurprising that the thinkers most associated with that revolt would cite Canguilhem et. al. as crucial predecessors.
In consequence, young, radical students of famous French thinkers (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault) sought to combine an anti-empiricist and anti-positivist philosophy of science derived from Canguilhem et. al. with the psychoanalytic advances of Lacan, and the anti-humanism and anti-historicism of Althusser’s structural Marxism. Much of this took place in the journal Cahiers pour l’Analyse, in interventions by the likes of Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, and Alain Badiou. What this meant in practice was a refusal of the idea, say, of the self or ‘subject’ as (ideal) foundation, as in Descartes, and in turn the conferral of an at least provisional scientific legitimacy to ideas such as the Freudian unconscious or the Marxist notion of historical totality.
What these philosophies demonstrate, is that the contemporary equation of ‘French theory’ with ‘postmodern relativism’ is as historically ignorant as it is philosophically illiterate.
If alternative movements in the philosophy of science would have required such notions to be confirmed via the identification of a material correlate (with the unconscious, for instance, to be identified with a specific area of the brain), the view of science opened up by Bachelard and others permitted a more mobile and historically alert perspective on the generation of knowledge. If the unconscious can’t be physically located, it may nonetheless be identified through its effects. The results of unconscious processes, so the argument would go, may allow one to reconstruct in retrospect an object, the unconscious, that could never have been identified from the get go. If this entails a scrambling of our usual means of distinguishing between cause and effect, between an object and our interpretation of it, so be it: such is the necessity impressed upon reason by the birth of new practices of knowledge such as psychoanalysis.
This perspective is, of course, not without its problems. How, after all, to judge the truthfulness of a proposition once any clear distinction between the investigation of an object and the object of that investigation has been blurred? How does one finally distinguish between a correct interpretation and an incorrect one, if the focus of one’s interpretation is at least partially internal to that investigation? Is the philosophy of science to be limited to the internal historical investigation of the development of a scientific concept and its immanently produced objects, and if so, what mode of verification might subsequently apply? I hope to have shown in my ‘Post-Rationalism’ book that French ‘post-rationalism’ at least provisionally reaches an alternative conclusion, whereby the success or failure of an investigation may be judged not in terms of the closeness or adequacy of concept and referent, but rather in the efficacy of the new object of knowledge produced; in the fashion in which that new composite object opens up new areas of inquiry otherwise hidden by the production of previous objects and concepts.
But most importantly, what these philosophies, and their further flowering in what became known as ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-structuralism’, demonstrate, is that the contemporary equation of ‘French theory’ with ‘postmodern relativism,’ even with anti-science Trumpism, is as historically ignorant as it is philosophically illiterate. Far from striking truth from the record, such theories instead, and at the very moment of modernism’s waning, invited new ways of thinking the relationship of object to concept, of sign to referent, of science to politics, of politics to art, and of truth to its historical conditions.