It is a boring platitude that history has produced its share of intellectual folly. Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed that humans are born a “blank slate” and only corrupted as they grow up in modern society, an assertion he could have known to be insane merely by paying a few hours of attention to the handful of children he fathered and sent off to the orphanage right after their birth. Karl Marx falls neatly into the same category: Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he spent most of his life staring at books and had little actual regard for the “proletariat” he purported to elevate. This showed in his writings, which betrayed a one-dimensional view of the capitalist economies in the West.
Yet few intellectual currents in modern history have been more divorced from reality than the philosophy labeled postmodernism from the 1960s onwards. This broad amalgam of ideas and the Social Justice Movement it spawned are the subject of an important new book by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose (of ‘grievance studies affair‘ fame), titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody.
Lindsay and Pluckrose aim to explain “how [Postmodernist] Theory has developed into the driving force of the culture war of the late 2010s,” and propose “a philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life.”
Since we’re presently living through the age of cancel culture and street riots, it goes without saying that the arrival of Cynical Theories is extremely timely. That these two authors would agree with that assessment is evident: “Postmodernism has, depending upon your view, either become or given rise to one of the least tolerant and most authoritarian ideologies that the world has had to deal with since the widespread decline of communism and the collapses of white supremacy and colonialism.”
While the original postmodernism is hard to define (possibly on purpose), Lindsay and Pluckrose identify the philosophy’s two core principles: 1) “The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism”; and 2) “The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”
Flowing from these two principles are “four major themes of postmodernism”: 1) “The blurring of boundaries” (“a suspicion of all the boundaries and categories that previous thinkers widely accepted as true”); 2) “The power of language” (seeing ideas as “mere constructions of language”); 3) “Cultural relativism” (“no one set of cultural norms can be said to be better than any other”); and 4) “The loss of the individual and the universal” (both the autonomous individual and the universal are products of “powerful discourses and culturally constructed knowledge”).
Subsequently, the book documents how the original postmodernism of Foucault, Sartre, Derrida and Lyotard, which was too nihilist and self-destructive to be of any practical value, mutated into a more activist philosophy and ultimately into “Critical Theory” propagating — capital S and capital J — “Social Justice”. It made this transformation without abandoning the aforementioned two principles and four themes, however. The authors take each and every research field under postmodernism’s umbrella in turn and delve deeply into its epistemology: Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Feminisms and Gender Studies, and even the bizarre phenomenon of Disability and Fat Studies.
Lindsay and Pluckrose deserve credit for both the exhaustiveness of their research — who but the greatest masochist would want to spend countless hours perusing Lyotard’s insufferable books? — and the fact that they give postmodernism its due. For the most part they refrain from inserting value judgements until the conclusion of each chapter and the closing of the book.
Instead, they let the postmodernists speak and the reader draw their own conclusions, which, if they have a grain of intellectual honesty in them, cannot be but damning of the entire postmodernist enterprise. Steeped in hideous words such as “unessentializable”, “presencing” and “decoloniality”, both the postmodernist language and its claims border on plain derangement.
Disability and Fat Studies in particular stand out in this respect. Take for example this quotation from Fiona Campbell’s Contours of Ableism: “[A] chief feature of an ableist viewpoint is a belief that impairment or disability (irrespective of “type”) is inherently negative and should opportunity present itself, be ameliorated, cured or indeed eliminated.” One would be hard-pressed to find a person in a wheelchair who would disagree with this display of ableist oppression. Of course, the postmodernist would counter that the disabled, too, are socialized into a hierarchy of ability and unaware they’re under the oppressive yoke of their marathon-running fellow citizen.
Such a circular line of argument is unfortunately a feature of the postmodernist doctrine, not an incident, and to its advocates it’s become a stick with which to beat those critical of their program: “Social Justice scholarship and ethics,” the authors write, “completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice by condemning all other approaches as complicit with systemic bigotry and thus unthinkable—or, in practice, unpublishable and punishable.”
Long confined within the borders of college campuses, Theory was bound to spill over into the wider society. Lindsay and Pluckrose write: “The real world is changing to absorb the skills of such students, and a Social Justice industry already worth billions of dollars is forming, all dedicated to training our companies and institutions to enact and police The Truth according to Social Justice.” This spread also explains the totalitarian novelty of ‘cancel culture’ and, while not mentioned in the book, the riots haunting American cities in the spring and summer of 2020. What happens at Evergreen doesn’t stay at Evergreen.
The remarkable feature of Cynical Theories, and the one thing which makes the book so valuable, is that it is written from the perspective not of a fire-breathing conservative but of old-school liberals who champion the emancipation of women, gays, blacks and others within the framework of liberal democracy. Lindsay and Pluckrose don’t think that Theory is contributing to this cause—rather the opposite, in fact: Theory “allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender, and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally.” Moreover, they also worry, not without reason, that it “validates and emboldens identity politics on the identitarian right.”
The authors’ answer, then, lies in a vigorous defense of liberalism, which, “despite its shortcomings, is simply better for humans. … It is simply astonishing that over the same twenty year period (1960–1980) during which women gained access to contraception and equal pay for equal work, racial and sexual discrimination in employment and other areas became illegal, and homosexuality was decriminalized, the postmodernists emerged and declared that it was time to stop believing in liberalism, science, reason, and the myth of progress.” It is hard to argue with this verdict.
One idea in the book which leaves the most critical of readers scratching their head is the notion that postmodernism constitutes a rejection of Marxism and Communism. This is odd, considering that the original French postmodernists were without exception die-hard Communists before descending into their nihilist despair during the 1960s. In his excellent book Explaining Postmodernism Stephen Hicks argues that the new philosophy was instead “a symptom of the far Left’s crisis of faith” after Communism lost its last shred of credibility in 1956, and “a result of using skeptical epistemology to justify the personal leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism.” Though the relationship between postmodernism and Marxism is a complex one and beyond the scope of this review, the neutral reader is tempted to support Hicks’ view.
However, the main problem with Cynical Theories is with its form, not its content. The book purports to be “written for the layperson who has no background in this type of scholarship but sees the influence of it on society and wants to understand how it works.” Sadly, it has somewhat failed to meet that goal. Neither Lindsay nor Pluckrose are academics (though the latter’s mildly obscure biography informs us she is “an exile from the humanities”), but they have nonetheless managed to produce a book which reeks of the mustiness of college libraries. It is presumably not thorough enough to meet the standards of academic rigor, yet is too dry and delves too deep into the abscesses of postmodernist thought to appeal to the masses. In this respect the work is largely on par with Hicks’. This is a missed opportunity in light of current events, for the sooner the general public learns about the shenanigans on the part of Robin DiAngelo and her ilk, the better.
These minor criticisms aside, Cynical Theories is a remarkable achievement. To say that its authors took one for the team is perhaps an understatement. The subject at hand is not for the faint of heart. Yet their research is solid, and only somebody with an agenda could take issue with how postmodernism and its intellectual spawns are presented in the book. Now it’s up to us all to relegate the entire monstrosity to the dustbin of history, just like its Marxist sibling in 1989.