“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
“DEATH OF THE AUTHOR“
Repurposing half-understood full-appropriated French philosophy is a tried and tested resource for Anglo-American academics looking to corner the market in some influential sphere of study. No appropriation has been more impactful than postmodernism’s takeover of the intellectual life of the English-speaking world and it was Roland Barthes, French philosopher and literary critic, who provided the seminal tagline for a generation of academics winning gatekeeper credentials in mainstream culture by self-serving iconoclasm against the Modernist canon. Barthes’ tagline has become central to every facet of postmodern ideology. In French: le mort d’auteur. In English, somewhat more prosaic: death of the author.
Barthes’ 1962 work Le Mort d’Auteur (Death of the Author) and its numerous antecedents delivered context, substance and a perfectly flexible vocabulary to the rapidly expanding Anglo-American academy in the wake of the Second World War. Its professorial class was ready to be receptive. Academics were already in search of absolution for a collective failure to meet the challenge of fulfilling the potential of Modernist genius and the tenets of early postmodernist philosophy opened a route to both absolution and legitimacy. Its precepts accorded with the marketing of consensus – individuating without individualising – and its philosophical grounding undergirded an exclusively intercollegiate power-sharing of authority over fields of knowledge and credential rights.
Death-of-the-author hands the academy proprietary rights over the creations (and reputations) of artists and scientists past, present, future; and with authority over proprietary rights comes the privilege of gatekeeping, power without having to acknowledge – or laud – the creative sources; and thus a control of the context – including their impact on society.
Postmodernism elevates the gatekeeper above the artist and the scientist. In the hands of an orthodoxy, it consolidates a permanent patrician-worker relationship that can be aimed at putting the creative labourer in his or her place – or denying them a place altogether – regardless of an individual’s talent or merit.
L’AUTEUR EST MORT! VIVE L’AUTEUR!
“If neoliberal postmodernism is a death-of-the-author ideology, why are there more celebrities and other famous people today than ever before? Surely that’s the opposite of killing the auteur?”
Celebrity can be permitted so long as it’s subordinate to the authority of credential gatekeepers. In service of consensus uniformity celebrity becomes a far more stabilising badge of legitimacy than – for example – a meritocracy of talent. Talent is a risk. Virtuosity is inherently threatening to uniformity of collective consensus, just as genius disrupts faith in entrenched shared verities. Because talent, like genius, is an individuation it inevitably accretes influence to the individual; contrary to postmodernism’s death-of-the-author paradigm of “democratised” knowledge – professional, de-individuated, interchangeable, trained by instruction not intuition.
Celebrity, like brand ambassadors, is manufactured or appropriated (coerced), like a cultural honey poet. Public-facing fame is used as a mediation, an attractor for the visceral mainstream so it can be managed: misdirecting or absorbing the energy of youth, pacifying or persuading adult violence, messaging the popular imagination at scale so the public stays constrained within permissible cyclical trends of conformism without direct policing.
Postmodernism is the antithesis of meritocracy. Cloaked in the complex jargon of post-structuralism (and other obfuscating applied theory), ubiquitous postmodernist techniques have become part of the academic curricula. It aspires to – and has mostly achieved – a monopoly on credentialed knowledge. Its methodology is straightforward and corporate:
- Training in the “right” academies
- Membership of acceptable school and student organisations
- Graduated with a ready-made network of peers and references
- Committed to professionalism and career consistency
- Absolute loyalty to in-group power hierarchy
- Over the first decade of working life:
- proof of usefulness to the machinery of expertise class economics
- maintaining a clean reputation
- working the necessary exploitations of the job
- without scandal like accountability or offence to public morals
- Agreeable, reliable, predictable, public-private separation.
Ambitious professionals who successfully parse the above precepts, through the prism of good education and mature propriety, into real action and real decisions, advance up the ladder of neoliberal society.
In place of the Modernist crucible of genius and diverse, stochastic opportunity, the postmodern-neoliberal credential network is conservatively corporate managerial. The best, most convincing exponents of acceptable practice enjoy a charmed life, steadily progressing through selection gate after selection gate towards positions of leadership in their field. Hard-working heterodox genius, on the other hand, gets death-of-the-author sidelined. Their contributions to the field are deconstructed, delegitimised, stripped down to serve the consensus.
Islands of resistance to the dominance of postmodern-neoliberal corporatism can be found dotted around the institutions but academic anachronism is seldom inter-connected, its isolated professors rarely united in a way that challenges the consensus. Open rebellion is a dangerous choice and the gatekeeper monopoly, once offended, punishes transgression without mercy. As T. E. Lawrence wrote: “There’s no greater hate in religious castes than the hatred directed at apostasy.”
The natural scions of Modernism – schools of art and philosophy like structuralism and deconstruction – may refuse to serve the ideological monolith, but their numbers shrink each year and their public voice is reduced to a whisper. Most people, academics or otherwise, are information-regulated to fixate on vapid pop culture at the expense of everything else save perhaps their own narrow field of expertise. The average citizen would struggle to name an exponent of – let alone define – a single non-mainstream cultural movement.
REPURPOSED HETERODOXY OR PURGED APOSTASY
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. Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Chomsky and other pantheon thinkers have been subsumed by the professional expert class, grandfathered into the culture, too much reputation and too marketable to de-platform but nonetheless marginalised in their esoteric ‘special’ departments whenever their anti-postmodern, anti-establishment voices get too loud.
Less publicly influential non-conformists receive more brutal treatment by the gatekeepers of credential legitimacy. Loose tongues quickly find themselves excluded from the high-profile events calendar, funding dries up, papers never get beyond preprint and instead fade away unable to find peer review. Persistent offenders are beaten down by ad hominem gossip – labels like intransigent, difficult, unreliable, accusations of dishonesty, peddling misinformation – hard to shake off, designed to corrode or compel submission.
Death-of-the-author, metastasised over the decades, has successfully indoctrinated the last few generations of knowledge workers into an increasingly exclusive, comprehensive neoliberal technocracy. Today, the manufacture of gatekeepers is self-regulating and self-replenishing; a school-to-career-to-power pipeline locked in place by corporatised funding, regulatory capture and proven fitness for purpose.
COMMODITY MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS
Consumer capitalism – the oligopoly marketplace as arbiter of value – ran parallel to the postmodernisation and corporatisation of the academy during the 1950s-1970s, but following a convergence in the 1980s, the forces of economics and human knowledge were natural bedfellows by the start of the 1990s.
The success of professional academia was not only evident in the domination of college culture but also in having trained the next generation of upper-middle class white collar workers. By the 1990s it amounted to de facto postmodernist-capitalist orthodoxy throughout the business and political world.
Integrating entrenched power centres with highly trained postmodern academics was ultimately an easy alliance. Neoliberalism – the ideological zygote of consumer capitalism and corporate state postmodernism – took centre stage with the election of an Arkansas governor and a Durham lawyer, redefining the political landscape around its sociocultural agenda.
By the turn of the millennium – more than a hundred years after Nietzsche wrote “God is Dead! And we have killed him!” – the English-speaking world (at least) had found its new God. It was not a divine anthropomorphic super-being God. It was a postmodern death-of-the-author God. It was a God whose religion meant a faith in progress, in Anglo-civilisation, in equitable neoliberal business and a trust in the marketplace of ideas as an ultimate dispassionate arbiter on value.
And while it’s true to say these articles of faith have been shaken since 2000 and that civil society is being held together by an increasing lack of public confidence in the verities of institutions, the reordered power dynamics that emerged from the 1980s and 1990s on behalf of the top third (where most of the wealth and almost all of the power is held) are more deeply entrenched and better fortified than ever before; even if the fortifications are having to be turned against the majority of the population.
Much of what separates the upper third from the general public is the direct scaled-up modus operandi of 20th-century postmodernism. It takes from the same playbook – and employs much of the same professional class – academic gatekeepers and their students graduated into government, institutions and the fourth estate.
Long since disconnected from the values of pre-war intelligentsia, conditioned to corporate faith and privileged commodification of knowledge, the 21st-century gatekeepers focus on control; control over information, control over public access to opportunity, control over the syllabus used to credential the next graduate professionals, control over the enforcement of loyalty, orthodoxy and the consequences of apostasy.
Postmodernism is systemised, culturally mechanised, academically legitimised, socially imperative, primed at every level to exclude disagreeable individuals (outliers, non-conformists, inventors, disruptors, genius, original thinkers, contrarians), allied with elite political power to wield identity politics (wokeness, bastardised critical race theory, divisive gender and sexual imposition), commodification of everything and the hoarded opportunity of status quo credentialism.
Mass media propaganda is the natural bullshit spigot of the ahistorical postmodern corporate state. The commodification-of-everything packages knowledge, ideology and consumer capital like a modern religion and everyone is conditioned to respond to its familiar doctrines of money and product and salary. Slogans – advertising products or political wedge issues – are synonymous with expressions of faith. Neat parables (adverts, editorials, talking points) inculcate universal median (degraded) values in a spiritual vacuum.
In terms of opportunity and economics quality of life continues on a downward trajectory with no sign of improvement. Citizens fight over toilet paper and juggle their credit card debt, toiling under interest payments to banks and anonymous big finance shareholders. Meanwhile, our brave new world is locked in a death-spiral of consumer population ever closer to precarity, responding to and then demanding ever more “essentialist” fantasies to answer the void of unmet existential hunger no Black Friday sale can satisfy.
For the expert class the game is less desperate but equally bankrupt. Corporate rules apply. Authenticity is a liability, divergence is danger, conformity is the safest option. Never take responsibility, else the risk of accountability could lead to fatal censure. Judge books by their covers and let trending ephemera (vapid, unchallenging, acceptable to power) captivate attention as it does for the general public. Be private about counter-cultural interests and treat open complexity (nuance, subtlety, depth, ambiguity) as a red flag for suspicion or stupidity.
The educated managerial class lives in a better, richer world than the relentless exploitation laying siege to the working class but the graduate world is navigated by hypocrisy in denial of common human care. Just doing a well-paid job, where all the egregious exploitation is abstracted into foreign countries, is nonetheless corrosive and – like parochial precarity – is doomed to face an existential reckoning.
The postmodern-neoliberal paradigm is nothing less than a paradigm of sociological and cultural coma waiting for the asteroid to strike. The asteroid is a metaphor. The strike won’t be.
“I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.” – Germaine Greer (1939-)