“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
“DEATH OF THE AUTHOR“
Roland Barthes, French philosopher and literary critic, provided the seminal tagline for postmodernism’s bespoke iconoclasm against Modernism, allowing its proponents to market their intellectual credentials to mainstream culture. Repurposing half-understood full-appropriated French philosophy is a tried and tested playbook for Anglo-American academics looking to corner the market in some influential sphere of study.
Barthes’ 1962 work Le Mort d’Auteur (Death of the Author) delivered context and a perfect language to undergird the academy’s self-serving disdain of individual virtuosity. Its tenets liberated faculty consensus to claim proprietary rights over the creations of artists and scientists without having to acknowledge – or laud – those responsible; and thus control the context and extent of their impact on society, putting the creator in his or her place (or denying them a place altogether) and, in so doing, evade the challenge implicit in proper recognition of exceptional talent.
What little resistance remained in the university faculties was picked off in the post-Vietnam decades. Consumer capitalism and later neoliberalism were natural bedfellows with postmodernism and their convergence began in the 1980s, integrated entrenched interest branding in the 90s and a transformed society-wide ‘received wisdom’ in their image – unquestioned, articles of faith, part of the natural order – by the turn of the millennium.
In the modern academic and broader public sphere, especially with the potential democratisation of the avant-garde thanks to internet new media, command over public space legitimacy is essential for postmodernists holding a monopoly on power over credentials and access. The orthodox consensus academics wield this command with surgical attention to detail.
The authoritarians permit celebrity but subordinate it to official badge of legitimacy, precluding democracy of talent – because talent is threatening, a risk to consensus uniformity if allowed to accumulate influence. Celebrity is instead used as a cultural honey pot, fame carefully managed to attract the mainstream and pacify it, distracting the energy of youth, comforting the adults while keeping the public imagination trapped in predictable conformity cycles.
Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault and other pantheon thinkers have been tailored to meet the needs of the professional expert class. Postmodernism is the antithesis to meritocracy. Career loyalty subterfuge wins advancement. The best most convincing vessels enjoy a future as heroes as well as leaders of their field. Hard-working heterodox genius, on the other hand, gets “death of the author” sidelined and their anonymous contributions are melted down into the consensus. The success of this “death of the author” spin, cloaked in the complex language of post-structuralism and other obfuscating applied theory, undergirds what’s developed into a postmodernist monopoly on credentialed knowledge.
There are islands of resistance to postmodernist dominance dotted around the institutions but open rebellion is a dangerous choice. Leftover schools of thought may remain, carrying the torch for the scions of Modernism and refusing to feed the ideological monolith – like structuralism and deconstruction – but their public voice is reduced to a whisper and most of the public would struggle to name let alone define any of these heterodox philosophical and cultural movements.
Niche heterodoxy fared better, perhaps because of its marginal influence, than most other alternatives to postmodernist consensus. Most non-postmodernist strains in philosophy, literary theory, psychology and social science have flared up and ‘failed’ and vanished back into obscurity; defeated by the academy, purged from the public square or simply compromised-caricatured, appropriated by the powers-that-be into a support for the postmodern juggernaut rather than a challenge.
In particular, post-structuralism and critical race theory have been wholly repurposed – cannibalised by the postmodern orthodoxy – to fuel one of the most insidious and impactful anti-individual movements of recent years: identity politics and the culture war.
Outspoken academics with both legitimacy and autonomy dwindle in number each year. Celebrity intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and Noam Chomsky are grandfathered into the culture but nonetheless find their anti-postmodernist, anti-establishment voices marginalised in plain site: retained by the academy in esoteric ‘special’ departments, left off the high profile events calendar , tarnished by the label of intransigence despite too much reputation to gag, too marketable to deplatform. The death of non-conformist authors will be slow; but inevitable for all that.
Death of the author is postmodernism – systemised, culturally mechanised, academically legitimised, socially imperative exclusion of disagreeable individuals (outliers, non-conformists, inventors, disruptors, genius, original thinkers, contrarians) – is allied with elite neoliberal technocacy – identity politics (wokeness, bastardised critical race theory, divisive gender and sexual imposition), commodification, status quo credentialism. This postmodernist neoliberal technocracy combination aims to become the sole paradigm for society.
The end result of the paradigm’s proliferation is an accelerating transformation of everyday public life into some kind of never-ending reality show. Authenticity is a liability. Divergence is danger. Conformity is safety. Books are judged by their cover and trending ephemera captivate public attention while complexity (nuance, subtlety, depth, ambiguity) is an instant recipe for suspicion. Momentum for the new paradigm is easily increased; mass media propaganda is a natural fit in the ahistorical postmodern society. Slogans – advertising products or political agenda – are synonymous with faith, neat parables inculcate universal median (degraded) values and the brave new world is lock in a death-spiral of consumer population responding to and then demanding ever more reductive simple fantasies to answer their existential hungers.
The postmodern-neoliberal paradigm is nothing less than a paradigm of sociological and cultural coma.
“I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.” – Germaine Greer (1939-)
The exponents of postmodernist thought achieved their dominance over institutional intellectual authority in stages.
First the eradication and appropriation of the Modernist (and preceding) traditions.
Second to be a monopoly over academia and the source of definitions of what’s orthodox, what’s correct, who’s an authority, who’s a bad actor, across society as a whole.
Third to propagate their verities and their power hierarchies into the broader culture, politics and public conversation.
Over the past 80+ years this project has been successful beyond the wildest imaginings of the early progenitors, and over the past generation a convergence (and cross-pollination) of interests and influence has created a distinct credentialed neoliberal-postmodernist elite class that’s started its final metastasising into… who knows?
Intersectionality has become one of the frontline weapons against anyone and everyone failing to bend the knee to the increasingly aggressive credentialed elite authority. Born of a legitimate socioeconomic legal theory, intersectionality has been extracted from a corruption of appropriated Critical Race Theory and disguised as a counterattack on (white) privilege, it is used as a means to condition female, gay, lesbian, transgender, black, brown and any other minorities into self-policing, self-censoring purity enforcers.
If the ‘minority’ individual steps out of line, however, the postmodernist underbelly is exposed: censorship, silencing, outrage character assassination, the standard arsenal same as it would be used against white male patricians. In the postmodernist vision of democratised culture there can be a multitude of colours, genders and identities but only one orthodoxy; one ‘right thinking’ consensus.
As is typical in the postmodernist world, rhetoric is idealised and fine sounding but reality is frequently the very opposite. Identity politics – whatever its roots – has become an essentialist doctrine. Women are demeaned, reduced to mere ciphers, gays are flatlined and remade as icons, all face no substance. Black talent, worst of all, is forced to play poster boy or poster girl, forced to represent only a narrow race-brand identity that’s ultimately a less escapable apartheid than any stereotype of the ghetto because it’s intellectual and cultural rather than simply segregation by wealth and physical space.
In the rarified air of faculty common rooms and social media, stereotypes that never represented reality have become lowest common denominator polytypes. Identity is reductive, generous to its loyal advocates but judgmental of would-be supplicants for membership.
Transgender cultural-marxism is a corollary of intersectional identity politics at the frontline of culture war and it’s a complex subject impossible to reduce into binaries. But reduced to binaries it has been – a culture war trope – as children forced into lifelong choices because they’ve shown a certain preference or denied access to medical treatment despite their consistent preference, transgender adults whose self-worth is defined only by the extremes of a trans identity monolith mostly orchestrated by non-trans footsoldiers with bigger political agenda.
The #metoo phenomenon is another example of the disingenous identarian toolkit. #metoo was born of legitimate feminism – a consistent lineage of genuine organised resistance to endemic misogynous patriarchy – but in the expert hands of postmodernist influence networks captured and repurposed as another way to bring down non-conformists. Its principles get applied to opponents of the dictates of credentialed groupthink but never to abuses committed by loyal conformists. Institutional verities extend their dominance of ‘right-thinking’ and #metoo is the intersectional means to control culture whenever it touches gender.
Where multiple identities clash, intersectionality gives way to expediency as the postmodernist hierarchies of power force consensus as best suits their agenda, delivering judgment from up on high to their army of groupthink enablers. It doesn’t matter if an authentic movement must be oppressed, if it’s in service of the ruling class. It doesn’t matter if a non-conforming icon must be silenced, if it’s required by the gatekeepers of truth. Over time a divide and conquer strategy emerges.
Mark the deplatforming and discrediting campaign against a renowned feminist like Germaine Greer, purged from the official feminist institutions by misrepresenting her disloyalty as TERF anti-trans violence. It’s ironic that casualties of the culture war are often the very courageous most-principled individuals who’d devoted their life advocating for the very identity now directed against them, led by the culture war soldiers of its credential consensus.
Feminism, civil rights, the fight against homophobia – legitimate movements all – have been twisted in the hands of postmodern spin doctors to serve the consensus firepower of the academy and its surrogates. Identity becomes a credential to be used against dissenters by the professional class in defence of their command structure as sole arbiters of culture. As the technocratic 21st-century develops, identarian intersectionality has become the most significant force of crossover culture war, an arsenal of social engineering proliferating throughout society to empower the gatekeeper monopoly on truth.
The appropriation of feminism, sexuality and race should be a practical warning of the ultimate bankruptcy – and dishonesty – of postmodern ideology. Identity critical theory does not do what it purports to do. Exceptional women or great gay artists or genius who happen to be non-white aren’t freed from the shackles of traditional racist, homophobic white male-privilege. They are hobbled like any other outlier, tested first for a loyalty to credentialism that’s antithetical to whatever greatness might be attained by their individual unfettered potential. Aspiration to high culture is disqualifying by default.
“The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” – Roland Barthes (1915-1980)
Postmodernist neoliberal values inform the perspective of the engines of mainstream culture (media, legislatures, colleges, human resources departments, etc) in part because it has built credibility from decades of grassroots expert academic consensus. It has spread from the institutions to every corner of society thanks to a neo-masonry of trained, loyalty preselected graduates.
Its colonisation of culture (high, low, elite and mainstream) has reached such ubiquity it has developed into a form of corporate-statist uniformity. Mindful of the need to manufacture consent, neoliberal government – itself a profession class from the same collegiate background – wields postmodernist cultural authority as a litmus (and enforcement mechanism) for citizen right-thinking. Identity politics – cancel culture – appropriated woke-ism are all corollaries of this sociocultural power dynamic.
Winston Smith in the novel 1984 wrote “if there was hope, it must lie in the proles” but Winston was wrong as George Orwell knew and proceeded to describe in brutal detail over the rest of the novel. In the culture wars prosecuted by neoliberal postmodern institutional power a renaissance will only come about if a critical mass of educated, free-thinking individuals find the courage and the opportunity to fight back. Entrenched power knows its enemy and understands the benefit of early elimination of potential threats. The individual is the target and – at society scale – individuality itself ends up in the crosshairs.
The individual is problematic. Disorganised, unusual, independent, mostly atomised and often contrarian, the individual presents a perennial X-factor in the social body politic. Institutional monopoly of the public square facilitates a professional culture war against heterodox thought across every layer of society. Its arsenal includes the weaponisation of identity politics and a Kendi-diAngelo caricature of woke critical race theory, discharged by an army of graduate party loyalists to preemptively reduce outliers to lowest common denominator original sin and reactively punish individuals for transgressions against media-academic prescription.
As technology is folded into the surveillance and enforcement mechanisms, anything and everything off-narrative is subject to the same (or AI-amplified) process of rapid marginalisation – in the case of individual contrarians – and reductive appropriation – in the case of movements presuming to go against the grain.
Complete cultural victory for the postmodernist-neoliberal cabal will see truth subjugated to expediency and a homogenised population defined by authority – and to each other – by mere group identity that’s equivalent to living caricature. It’ll become a conformist safe zone that’s a minefield for anyone presuming to free expression, a technocracy so pervasive it will be a de jure unanimity and a de facto obsolescence.
“I believe in the value of the book, which keeps something irreplaceable, and in the necessity of fighting to secure its respect.” – Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
The strength of the postmodernist academy comes from its graduate torchbearers having infiltrated gatekeeper a majority of positions in corporate departments and an interoperability with state authority. What began as a marriage of shared expediency has become endemic power sharing, reciprocity written into its DNA.
Any group seeking to thwart the academy-corporate state interests – e.g. ideologically opposed to consumer capital professional credentialism – gets the ‘counter culture’ brush treatment – villified, fearmongered, demonised. Ornery youth and precariat workers are ever the frontline victims e.g. striking workers, beat generation anticonsumerists, hippies, gender fluid trannies, punks and crusties, environmentalists, libertarians, bugaloos, pacifists, new atheists, trolls, intellectual dark web personalities, etc.
Vigilant, pro-active and anti-individual to the marrow, the arbiters of public truth work to ensure the mainstream is exposed only to proven postmodernist-neoliberal consensus. This is the state of society approaching the 2020s. There’s no sign of meaningful push back against the top-down technocratic methodology. Outliers must be kept away from the public; and through social media monopolies it’s possible to exclude disruptive content from the mainstream, cutting access for contrarian individuals despite all the interconnected potential of the online world. No genius can be allowed to turn a platform into a pedestal. No expert can be given credible authority over truth, however many facts might be marshalled in support.
This is the direction of tech-based censorship and algorithms are tailored to manage mainstream conditioning; peopled by credentialed professionals loyal to the postmodern method and the neoliberal hegemony. The ruling class can even afford to let the non-conformist rant and rail to fairweather audiences in hidden echo chambers. In a few decades the child-to-adult conditioning will no longer graduate non-conformists. There will be no more non-conformists.
The rotten core of the postmodernist movement has remained since its progenitor influences in the 1950s. Its methods, on the other hand, have become more authoritarian, more ruthless and more corrosive as its influence has grown. Today the standard postmodern-neoliberal playbook includes weaponising characteristics like toxic envy, blind outrage, race antirace cryptofascism, endemic sociopath-narcissism. Atomisation is a fundamental divide-and-rule strategy. It leads naturally to redefining loyalty as a team game synonymous with right-thinking common sense, school and social media algorithms training conformity dressed as autonomy and a disingenuous intellectual communism whose prime directive is extirpation of individual free thought.
Power dynamics are abused daily as the rich and influential receive a stacked deck and a lenient forgiving life experience while for the proletariat it’s the opposite: rule-breakers get severe punishments, errors will ruin their lives and by high school, their thinking has been overwhelmed by a deliberate syllabus of mental disability: exacerbating natural frailties into victim complexes, conditioning them to see expertise as a sin, traditions of excellence as oppressive patriarchy, individuality subsumed by a self-censoring paranoid ‘know your place’ training.
Leaders in the postmodern paradigm state – politicians, salaried celebrities, pliable public intellectuals, ethnic symbols – must be caricatures to receive credentials for the public eye. What used to be an imperfect meritocracy is turned into a existential lottery – and, ironically, lottery is an easier sell to members of the public convinced of their own transcending worth and conditioned against critical thinking, absolved the need for self-improvement and too busy for inconvenient self-examination.
The whole warped system of postmodern-neoliberal culture war against the individual is a tyranny of the majority, delivered efficiently through exploitation of the very worst of human traits: vanity, egoism, outrage and self-absorbed opinion being naturally preferred to tolerance, patience, empathy and complex challenging nuance. Disconnection from centuries of intellectual tradition and severing of cultural achievement in the name of loyalty to disingenous orthodox imperatives is a potentially irreparable coarsening of our delicate civilisation. It will be a dictatorship by the mob imposed by kangaroo courts of public opinion, a descent into intellectual and cultural barbarism that eventually brings down the professional elites too.
In a multifarious world, in the broad sweep of human history that’s a struggle for symbiosis in the enlightenment West and across the utilitarian East, the former is at risk of becoming permanently obsolete.
“The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)