Individuals aspiring to creative genius in the arts or the sciences – or to advance the bleeding edge in any field of expertise – will mostly fall short. It’s an inevitable part of aspirational human nature. Most human beings are spared the psychological consequences of this shortfall by the protective delusions of Dunning-Kruger egomania. As Aldous Huxley wrote: “The εpsilon children were happy in their fashion, having a demonstrable aversion to pretensions like useless complex thinking.”
Some human beings, like intelligent university professors, have the critical thinking necessary to perceive the reality of creative genius and the likelihood of their own falling short. These scholars are well acquainted with the shining lights of their field and – especially in the shadow of the incredible flourishing of Modernist brilliance – come to recognise in themselves personal shortcomings and ultimately, for most, an unjust but insurmountable lack of talent.
How could these academics, accustomed to authority in their college fiefdoms, feted in and by the civic institutions for the high-minded choice to pursue knowledge for its own sake rather than enrichment in the business world, reconcile falling short of genius when it’s the thing they worship more than any other human characteristic? For an entire generation of post-war academics, postmodernism became the answer. By the generation after that, the answer had become universal.
“Great spirits have always encountered the most violent opposition from mediocre minds.“ – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Postmodernist systems are a means to an end, and they have served successive generations of professions – and their students – for at least the past 75 years. Just as the Nazis had bastardised Nietzsche to justify Aryan eugenics, the early postmodernists – educated, excellent, erudite exponents – corrupted Heidegger’s rollback of temporal ontology (as the defining way to think about the world) to legitimise a rejection of the significance of all individual human beings, genius most of all, in the creative process. “Death of the Author” was and is a central slogan of the postmodern project.
In the years after the second world war, societies in great flux demobilized into an altered citizen spirit. Postmodernism was not at first a pervasive dogma. It incubated in the universities as a convergence of genuinely blue sky sociology studying conditions in the immediate aftermath of war with philosophy turned introspective in search of meaning in a post-industrial relativistic universe. Philosophy and sociology might have kept themselves uncorrupted were it not for the arts faculties – far more numerous and influential in an everyday sense – having been caught between a James Joyce rock and a Virginia Woolf hard place.
Postmodernism calcified into a cross-faculty movement that’s been consolidating power ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, the most famous emigre after Einstein, was one of the first to perceive the poison entering the veins of post-war academia. His greatest work, Pale Fire, was a warning and a lamentation of the postmodernist phenomenon.
Career academics, their fragile conceits needing a system of protection against the genius of modernism, were driven to postmodernist ideas which they quickly and self-servingly appropriated.
We are all susceptible to the temptations of our worst instincts – our path of least resistance – especially when the alternative is psychologically risky, complex and uncertain. The choice of ‘be true’ or ‘be compromised’ follows every academic and every artist throughout their career. It’ll remain at hand as they go through periods of self-doubt or crises of confidence and the expediency of compromise is amplified by institutional weight of numbers. Eventually the intensity of pressure and the proximity of the solution builds to a coda: a choice between principled truth plus independent hardship – alone, often vilified, denied institutional respect – and compromise plus security and plenty – accepted into the club, trusted and respected.
Back in the 1950s “Beat” poetry was emerging in Columbia University and it clashes almost immediately with the academic authorities. Colleges closed ranks to dispossess the new wave. Some version of this dichotomy played out in a thousand academies: tenured professors in the halls, portraits of modernist genius on the walls, but the vital individuals who might’ve been their natural successors shut out, excluded, forced outside the institutions.
Battle lines were rapidly arranged. Postmodernism formalised itself into the de facto armour and arsenal of the academy. The shut out was successful and it didn’t take long for the new ideology to spread.
The cultural internecine over the hearts and minds of the institution – academia and a plethora of media outlets, print, radio, television, film – reached a point of irreparable divide by the end of the trigger-happy 1960s. Assassination of leading counter-culture figures like Kennedy, MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton testifies to this polarisation as Vietnam, hippy anti-nationalism and widespread student protests against vocational consumerisation of learning (e.g. the Situationists, Kent State, the Weather Underground) brought the power of the state into direct conflict with the individual.
Despite a final generation of outlier brilliance, the 50s-60s-70s children of the Modernist luminaries were denied access to influence mechanisms necessary to create their own successors. Jack Kerouac and the Beats, Tennessee Williams and the Southern Renaissance, James Baldwin and the Civil Rights Movements: childless despite their intellectual renown. Indeed individuals were made into front-line targets, forced into confrontations with authority as tarnished counter-culture villains.
The next generations of academics were well-organised cherry-picked successors, greedy for authority but trained to play by the rules. Professional iconoclasts, some in pursuit of misguided but sincere notions of democratising the academy, established hostility to received wisdom and acted – in teams – to bring to heel outlier excellence. What began as a movement contained within a handful of university faculties marched forth into the education mainstream like a new religion.
The early motivation of academics may have been wrong, but to counteract the poison we mustn’t see it as an incomprehensible weakness of character. Perhaps if it had admitted a little nuance – like humility – the future would have been different. It wasn’t able to do this, however. Committed to a reductive perversion of an intellectual relativism, quick to define the opposition in counter cultural terms, increasingly partnered with state expediency, things only got worse.
The timing was fortuitous and an ideological conflict already well developed within the universities made postmodernists natural and instructive collaborators with entrenched corporate government interests pushing the agenda of state authority. Both groups saw their chance: to permanently marginalise dissenters, including untrustworthy writers and auteurs and non-conformist professors; to train subsequent generations properly as ‘good’ future citizens, to nip any discord in the bud.
Worst of all, anyone slipping through the net and presuming to exhibit genius out of loyal home-team context became a threat to the mainstream social order, same as those early Beat and Angry Young Men counterculture rebels, subject to a takedown by every means available in the formidable state-sanctioned postmodernist playbook.
“…for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.“ – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
Postmodernism is particularly pernicious, as a cultural movement, because it gives its exponents a toolkit that’s both utilitarian and subject specific, honed – ironically – by thousands of extremely clever and cynical social engineers. It’s the most effective human resource selector of corporate academia. It covers jargon and linguistics. It provides litmus tests to gauge loyal friends and disloyal enemies to the cause.
Allied, by natural affinity, to the business practice of corporate divide-and-conquer, postmodernism has transformed universities into orthodoxy safe zones. Accreditation and ready-made publication so long as there’s no insubordination – or thought crime – against the institution’s rules of conduct. Like a new freemasonry, would-be graduates – and employees – entering the world of postmodernist doctrine receive informal schooling in identifying fellow believers alongside their formal education into career credentialism. Graduation is a trained commitment to the professional managerial class and the techniques of welding subject dogma with the dictates of manufactured consent.
Gatekeepers of the postmodernist arsenal learned to aim using the rightful inheritors of Modernist cultural hegemony. And it was learned fast, as the insidious schism between the credentialed professional class and the individual creative expanded into a global narrative of loyal right-thinking culture versus disloyal wrong-headed counter-culture that’s been a defining polarisation ever since.
By the end of the 20th-century, the spread of postmodern credentialism had become nothing less than an ideological colonisation. It had reached the outside world through successive waves of doctrinaire graduates breaking against every conceivable media and sociocultural institutions. Its tenacity, in the universities, and its success in the institutions, is testimony to the expert self-interest of its progenitor academics and the lasting human appeal of safe, incremental groupthink.
Nowadays, mainstream cultural conformity is ubiquitous. Its takeover has combined the conservatism of appropriated tradition, marshalled against the flash-points of counter cultural push-back, and liberal-statism of professional credential class converted to the tenets of postmodern anti-individualism. The institutions were ready from early on for the shift to mainstream control thanks to the professionalisation of academia against disruptive thinkers (genius) i.e. threats to their monopoly on conferred legitimacy.
With a few exceptions, it had been left to America to take the lead in cutting edge academic and cultural continuity from the 1950s until as late as the 1970s. A diaspora of talent from Europe had bolstered its indigenous faculties before the Second World War, and this continued once the war was over.
The professionalisation of American universities as vocational training rather than less profit-oriented cultivation of free intellectuals brought market forces into the global academy as never before. Europe and now East Asia may no longer be behind North America in its advanced education, but the parochial dollars-and-cents paradigm of the baby boomer period has impressed deeply on the institutions.
“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)