Postmodernism is usually considered a new phenomenon, even the final word in philosophy – merely one of the many fields it covers. The name itself sounds like it comes from the future. Actually, the first to advance postmodernist ideas was Gorgias, who lived 24 centuries ago. He was one of the first sophists, sometimes called the father of sophistry. Today, that term generally means sneaky fast-talk or lawyerly word games.
Gorgias was a philosopher, though arguably more of a rhetorician. He indeed taught rhetoric, at a time when talking circles around one’s opponents had become important in the field of law. Further, he was an entertaining public speaker. His style was florid, with dynamic phraseology having emotional impact, perhaps almost a hypnotic effect. His performance work was a similar career path to those touring on the 19th century lecture circuit such as Robert Ingersoll. His pursuits made him wealthy. These days, delivering lectures isn’t very profitable (unless your last name is Clinton), and the only money in philosophy is by being a soft-studies professor.
Plato did a stunning takedown in his Gorgias dialogue. It was a thought experiment where he put his own teacher Socrates up against Gorgias and his students. The opening question – basically “So what’s his actual job?” – is answered evasively. The master sophist essentially says that being able to talk the language of any profession is like having their skills; and to imitate any is the best work of all. (So, for example, playing a doctor on TV should be worth a medical degree.) Things get even more interesting after that, and eventually Gorgias comes out looking like a professional bullshit artist.
From Sophistry to Nothingness
The Gorgias treatise On Non-Existence was lost to the sands of time. However, the substance of the arguments was paraphrased, and the essentials are these:
- First and foremost, that nothing exists;
- Second, that even if it exists it is inapprehensible to man;
- Third, that even if it is apprehensible still it is without a doubt incapable of being expressed or explained to the next man.
One way to interpret this is that it represents a current of radical skepticism. Is it possible that the universe is a big illusion? For a more current analogy, maybe we’re bottled brains living in The Matrix. It’s a tautological proposition; you can’t prove or disprove something like that. Assuming the foregoing premises are true, then one’s sensory inputs – the evidence before our eyes – can’t help anyone understand the world around us. It’s unclear, then, why the senses evolved.
Another interpretation is that it’s epistemological nihilism. The historical Socrates did state that the beginning of wisdom is realizing how little one knows – or words to that effect. However, Gorgias went considerably further. Assuming he was being serious about it, this was a sort of agnosticism not about its usual sense of religion but about the entirety of reality. That said, 24 centuries later, we certainly do know a lot more about how the universe works. Thus, it’s even more absurd to believe in absolutely nothing.
Still, science doesn’t have all the answers just yet, and it’s not likely to uncover every mystery in the near future. Could there be more to the universe than we suspect? Plato himself had much to say about the realm of ideal forms underlying reality, though metaphysics is another thing you can’t really prove in a test tube. However, the total willful incomprehension that Gorgias espoused is silly, as well as passive and apathetic. Moreover, being engaged with the real world is essential, something even the simplest organisms do by instinct. As rational creatures, that’s our specialty.
The Results of Subjectivism
Notions similar to the nonexistence propositions stated earlier reinforce a range of fuzzy concepts, from New Age fluff all the way to full-blown solipsism. Within the confines of reason alone, one can’t prove or disprove any of that. Actually, this demonstrates the limitations of working things out from pure theory, not grounded in concrete facts or the evidence of one’s senses. Such things are what Ayn Rand called floating abstractions.
It’s not particularly helpful to believe your fate is controlled by the positions of the planets, or to try to cure disease by lighting a candle in your ear. You certainly can’t get far in life by imagining that you’re the only thing in the universe. If your imaginary self walks off of an imaginary cliff, no big deal, right? Sure, gravity is only a theory – and therefore a social construct, F=G(m1*m2/r^2) and all that – but it’s better not to disregard it.
To believe in nothing – therefore dispensing with reality – is one short step from being so open-minded that one’s brains fall out. Without any firm convictions, something will fill the mental vacuum. Often that’s whatever one finds the most personally rewarding. If one comes in contact with an ideology – especially if it’s being heavily promoted – one might begin to espouse it without examining it too critically. For subjectivists, believing something makes it real.
The New Sophistry
Postmodernism is a trendy current of subjectivism, taken seriously in academia. As for what it’s all about, if you can get a postmodernist to state the basic tenets (pinning them down on anything is a difficult task) you might get answers like these:
- Nothing is real
- Knowledge is impossible; nobody can understand anything
- Words don’t mean anything (a notion bolstered by the related current of poststructuralism)
So essentially, that’s recycled Gorgias. Postmodernists are notorious for churning out long, incomprehensible texts. Their obscurantism is much in keeping with the “words don’t mean anything” principle, as if attempting to prove the point by making no sense. For a brief sample of the writing style, the following is the beginning of a 1982 Communist text called “Studies in Materialism”:
The category of “Appearance” exists initially in the theory of knowledge as negative self-mediation. It is the movement of antithesis apprehended in its unity before Negative semblance interpenetrates Positive semblance, thus activating the theory of knowledge and Appearance as a category. Law as a category is reflection of Appearance into identity with itself.
Actually, that’s one of the more lucid examples. The following is one from Jacques Derrida. He was one of the major bullshit artists, also heavily involved in the related deconstructionism fad, and a master of the run-on sentence:
At the point at which the concept of différance, and the chain attached to it, intervenes, all the conceptual oppositions of metaphysics (signifier/signified; sensible/intelligible; writing/speech; passivity/activity; etc.)- to the extent that they ultimately refer to the presence of something present (for example, in the form of the identity of the subject who is present for all his operations, present beneath every accident or event, self-present in its “living speech,” in its enunciations, in the present objects and acts of its language, etc.)- become non pertinent. They all amount, at one moment or another, to a subordination of the movement of différance in favor of the presence of a value or a meaning supposedly antecedent to différance, more original than it, exceeding and governing it in the last analysis. This is still the presence of what we called above the “transcendental signified”.
The academic jargon I was forced to endure for a college class was larded up with Greek-derived terminology. This wasn’t a tribute to Gorgias – it’s doubtful they had any idea who came up with this stuff first – but rather to make it sound intellectual. That certainly was no help to figuring out what any of the word salads actually meant. Surely I assumed too much by expecting any of that was intended to mean anything. Sadly, the trees chopped down to print the textbooks died for nothing.
At least Gorgias himself made his patter entertaining enough to draw big crowds willing to fill the tip jar.
The Academic Scam
Postmodernist writings are so turgid and unreadable that they’re sometimes the subject of parody, such as by Alan Sokal. A more recent effort used a postmodernism generator, a computer program that spits out texts that look like the real deal. If you’re guessing that postmodernism and deconstructionism are elaborate word games, you might be onto something.
There’s a telling question that today’s sophists haven’t yet answered. If words have no meaning, what’s the point of discussing it at excruciatingly great length? The real reason is that they have to pay their imaginary bills with their imaginary money. Therefore, they have to keep doing professor stuff, like publishing papers, even if they’re nonsense. Actually, one certainly can argue that fiat currency is made of fairy dust. Still, those who don’t pay their bills will find that their utilities get shut off and their cars get repossessed. Back in the day, Alan Sokal got lots of criticism because he went after their racket.
Fortunately for these professional bullshit artists, they don’t need a tip jar. Their salaries are covered by tuition (Daddy’s money) and government grants (your tax money). Since the university system is still widely regarded as a ticket to the middle class, that’s not likely to change soon. Every year they’ll get classrooms with impressionable young people to indoctrinate.
The Political Angle
It should come as no great surprise that epistemological nihilism leads to political nihilism. It’s no accident that the proponents of postmodernism and related ideological currents are almost always on the left, often beyond the Soviet Politburo. If everything is relative and nothing is concrete, then the propositions of today’s Alice in Wonderland politics start making sense: criminals are victims of the oppressive establishment; the insane are the only true sane ones; and all the rest of it. Beauty and truth certainly have no meaning. At the least, it explains the left’s overemphasis on framing tactics and symbolism, appearance over substance, and attempts to control language. Essentially political correctness is an attempt to change reality by changing the way we think about it, and forcing people to talk about it their way.
Indeed, subjectivism is quite a convenient end-run around actually having to prove that they’re right! If there are no actual facts, then why even argue about whether or not something is really true? That’s hard work, especially when reality isn’t on their side. (Still, that doesn’t preclude the effort to manufacture facts.) It’s as if today’s leftists think that if they believe hard enough that gender is only a social construct, this will become the truth. That, of course, is merely one item of their obligatory dogma. Rather oddly, although leftist subjectivism began from a position of absolute uncertainty, merely hearing contradictory opinions will “trigger” them.
It gets a little more aggressive than that, of course. If Jeremy wants to put on a dress, call himself Galadriella, and insist he’s a woman – well, believing something makes it real, right? Not only can he have his own self-concept at odds with biology, he can force everyone around him to go along with it. Since political correctness supports notions like that, anyone who disagrees is a “hater” who can be penalized. If not for this, Galadriella would merely be a weirdo; now he’s a weirdo with the power to make everyone agree with him, or else. Go grrl!
The grand strategy of cultural Marxism was to divide society along the lines of race, sex, culture, and so forth. The postmodernist attacks on “essentialism” (the idea that those characteristics are meaningful, except in circumstances where they want these characteristics to be meaningful) and “hegemony” (normal society) merely picked up this thread. This helps drive the public to further atomization. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what today’s globalists want: identical consumer clones bereft of culture for the one-world shopping mall they have in mind.
Postmodernists sometimes make much use of irony. However, there is a significant ironic fact that they haven’t apprehended. Specifically, the greatest accomplishment of this group of leftists (as well as the Frankfurt School) was to help pave the way toward the New World Order for the benefit of a coterie of corrupt billionaires.
Beau Albrecht is a writer, author of science fiction and fantasy featuring off-the-wall humor, as well as Righteous Seduction, the next generation dating guide for men. Follow his blog for updates on his writing projects, “deplorable” politics, and more.