Yesterday on Twitter I had a protracted and sometimes unpleasant exchange with Aaron Hanlon. I came in with a lot of skepticism about Hanlon, since his writings are generally about how other people’s views are “myths” or “charades”, how his tribe’s censorship is justified based on good reasoning or good morals but other people’s criticisms of his tribe are “stifling” of their speech, and so forth. At one moment he’ll write: “Disinviting right-wing provocateurs isn’t a suppression of free speech. It’s a value judgment in keeping with higher education’s mission.” But at another he’ll characterize the firing of a liberal professor as the result of a censorious witch hunt, even when it comes as the result of a similar “value judgment”. In other words, his New Republic work, at least, is broadly hackish and partisan, more or less unprincipled, with little respect for, or attempt at understanding, his interlocutors. This was how he proceeded with me, though I can’t say I was very polite in return. Nonetheless, some interesting themes emerged.

To be clear, I still believe much of what Hanlon wrote was deliberately misleading. For example, he asked: “What the hell do I have to do with postmodernism or w/e the boogeyman is for these anti-humanities warriors? It’s THEIR confirmation bias & shoddy reasoning that leads them to think there’s a connection between my politics and my field.” He actually teaches a course on critical theory which involves authors like Barthes, Kristeva, and Lyotard, and in his work he cites theorists like Girard and Lukacs. As for the connection with politics, his papers are littered with epithets like “Eurocentric” and “colonialist”. He also wrote that “‘postmodern neo-Marxist’ is just nonsense. It’s like saying ‘anarcho-statist.’” But everyone knows what “postmodern neo-Marxist” means: It means the extension of a Marxist class analysis into “identity” domains. And he wrote: “[S]o very few courses in any discipline have anything to do with postmodernism.” But fields where one might encounter Foucault, for instance, include anthropology, art history, classics, comparative literature, criminology, English, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anything with “studies” in the name. When I asked Hanlon about this, he responded that most students aren’t majoring in these disciplines. But since his overall conclusion was that his opponents weren’t accurately characterizing humanities fields in particular, it suffices to respond that postmodern thought is important in humanities departments in particular. Which, as we all know, it is.

Hanlon is correct, however, that the witch-hunt against “postmodernism” is bad for a lot of reasons, and also that people calling for it use the term vaguely and inconsistently. For example, an essay on a very good web publication (for which I myself have written) refers to “Kant, Rawls, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault and other postmodern thinkers.” It is difficult to know what “postmodern” would mean for that essay’s author. There is also the confusion that the term seems to refer to a time period, an era or phase or whatever, but is more frequently used as though it refers to a school of thought or a set of views. Then there is the fact that the term is used differently in many different kinds of fields. There is postmodern art and postmodern art criticism, postmodern literature and postmodern literary theory, postmodern film, postmodern philosophy, postmodern culture, postmodern technology, maybe even postmodern science and postmodern politics. Is there a unified story to be told about all these uses?

Most attempts to delineate “postmodern” views fall very flat. For instance, it is sometimes characterized as a kind of skepticism about science. But David Hume and Nelson Goodman were not postmodernists. Sometimes it’s characterized as the idea that our minds construct the external world rather than vice versa. But Bishop Berkeley took an even more extreme view and he was not a postmodernist. Sometimes it’s equated with moral relativism. But J. L. Mackie took an even more extreme view and he was not a postmodernist. Or maybe he was; maybe they all were; but if so that suggests the term doesn’t hang together well enough to be of much use. Elsewhere postmodernism is taken to be the view that politics, especially liberal or leftist politics, and especially cultural politics and identity politics, should take precedence over other concerns, including the objective of finding the truth. But actually postmodern thought has been criticized by more classically Marxist thinkers for over half a century for being, ostensibly, insufficiently political. Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” was already subject to such a critique, and even seemingly political postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak have been targets for folks like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson. There is a pronounced tension between the postmodern “skepticism about grand narratives”, as Lyotard put it (and as Baudrillard explored in a book I’m currently writing a piece about, The Illusion of the End), and politically leftist teleologies of progressive history.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that people inveighing against postmodernism have a dialectical responsibility to define it. Imagine I’m telling you I don’t like sandwiches. You interrupt to ask if I consider a hot dog a sandwich. I don’t really know, so I get flustered. You say: “You don’t even know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what a sandwich is. Your concepts are all confused. You need to actually learn about this subject before you shoot your mouth off about it.” Now that would be a nonsensical response. I don’t need to have a conceptual analysis of “sandwich” to feel a certain way about the sorts of objects to which it, in its core usage, refers. Of course, if I were advocating some sort of policy about sandwiches – say, that everyone who eats a sandwich at my company should be fired – you would be right to ask for some clarity, because of voodooconcept creep, slippery slopes, and similar threats. (This applies just as much to “hate speech” as it does to “postmodern”, naturally.) It is not the case that we should be always and everywhere satisfied with “I know it when I see it”. At the same time, if you don’t know what a sandwich is, that seems like a “you problem”. Especially if the sandwich is you.