Farewell to a Fad

by Barbara Ehrenreich

[Published in The Progressive, March 1999, pp. 17-18.]

Before we bury postmodernism, let us praise it -- for a nanosecond anyway, because this was surely one of the least lovable fads to hit American campuses since drinking-till-you-barf. You know, I hope, who I'm talking about.

They favored menacing all-black garments, accessorized with a knowing smirk.

They considered themselves members of the left -- in fact its theoretical avant garde -- but their idea of activism never went beyond "deconstructing" some stray "text" for latent biases.

In the end, they didn't even have the grace to concede that they'd been beaten, insisting instead that there never was any postmodernism anyway, just a few "postmodernisms" here and there.

Credit for squelching this peculiar trend goes largely to one man, NYU physicist -- and it should be mentioned, leftist -- Alan Sokal. Three years ago, he submitted a parody of postmodernist thought to the postmodernist journal Social Text, which article purported to mock, in true postmodernist fashion, the silly old "dogma" that "there exists an external world," asserting instead that "physical `reality'" is just "a social and linguistic construct." The Social Text editors, thrilled to have a physicist defecting to their side, published the piece. In short order, the hoax was revealed and, to what should have been the terminal mortification of pomos everywhere, found its way into the New York Times.

Then, just a few months ago, Sokal and the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont delivered the coup de grace with their new book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, in which they skewer the towering prophets of French postmodernism -- including Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva and Jean Baudrillard -- for their bizarre and pompous gibberish.

To cite just one from among thousands of equally juicy examples -- this from the still-stylish Lacan:

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance [ecstasy], not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).

So what does it matter if some French guy wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one? Not much, except that on American campuses, especially the more elite ones, such utterances were routinely passed off as examples of boldly "transgressive" leftwing thought.

For over a decade, students taking courses in literature, film, "cultural studies," and even, in some cases, anthropology and political science, were taught that the world is just a socially constructed "text" about which you can say just about anything you want, provided you say it murkily enough. One of my own children, whose college education cost about $25,000 a year, reported that in some classes, you could be marked down for using the word "reality" without the quotation marks.

But as I said, we're here not only to bury postmodernism, but to praise it. The pomos were right about at least one thing: Much of the "reality" we live in day to day is in fact "socially constructed" -- and constructed out of random scraps of myth, propaganda, wishful thinking, prejudice, and fear.

For example, among the prominent "realities" grasped by many, if not a majority, of Americans, are the ideas that the market can solve any problem, including the ones it creates; that the poor are an "underclass" of lazy degenerates; and that America is, by some objective criterion, "the greatest country on earth."

Not only Americans, but most people on earth subscribe to one or more socially constructed "realities" that flout common sense and experience: That men are smarter than women, or that there exists a Supreme Being who takes a personal interest in our careers, romances, and efforts to lose weight. We like to flatter ourselves with the Rashomon story -- that every one of us brings a unique perspective to the world; in fact most of our thoughts, minute by minute, are borrowed from the common fund of socially acceptable nonsense.

Science -- the postmodernists' favorite love-hate object -- ratifies the human tendency to go along with the crowd rather than the evidence of one's senses. In a famous experiment conducted in 1956, social psychologist Solomon Asch confronted people with lines of various lengths. In nearly 40 percent of the cases, people adjusted their judgment of which line was longest in order to conform with the stated view of others, even when the others were blatantly and visibly wrong. The "conventional wisdom," in other words, very often turns out to be a collective delusion.

The trouble with the postmodernists is that they stopped short of saying why this matters. If the world was nothing but a ghostly swarm of human-generated imaginings, there'd be no good reason -- other than perhaps an aesthetic one -- to care much what their content was.

But there is an external reality, unadorned with snide quotation marks. (I will not argue this here. If you doubt it, as the old saw goes, kick a rock.) The two most venerable systems of human knowing -- science and religion -- disagree on many things, but both start from the postulate that there is indeed something "out there" which is not of our own making and which is thoroughly independent of our thoughts. And this is what makes our collective delusions potentially so dangerous. Lose sight of that Great External Out-There-ness and you risk obliteration, or, at the very least, the eternal boredom of living in a constricted, self-referential, closed system of a world.

Other nations that fancied themselves the "greatest on earth" have fallen to the barbarians they thought beneath their notice. As for those who imagine a kindly busy-body of a Supreme Being, who answers prayers and arranges the galaxies to suit our astrology charts -- well, they are doomed to miss the entire mad grandeur of a universe that casually extinguishes whole species, stars, and, with them, no doubt, life-supporting planets.

Most cultures understand the dangers of relying on the conventional wisdom and figure out some ways of getting "out of the box" from time to time, if only for a peek. In traditional cultures, this was often the job of the shaman, the prophet, or mystic adept -- most of whom who employed trance or meditation to escape, however briefly, from the tyranny of group-think. In our culture, we expect our professional skeptics -- scientists and secular intellectuals generally -- to do the same, though of course by very different means. It's the job of the paid thinker -- the lit-crit expert no less than the physicist -- to puncture myths, challenge prejudices, and expose the emperor's unclothed state.

The pomo-ists did some of that, and we should thank them for it. But in denying a reality independent of us, they condemned us to live in our collective delusions or, at best, in a more attractive -- less sexist, racist, homophobic -- version of them. They pointed out how stale and stuffy the air we breathe has gotten. Too bad their next move was to seal all the windows shut.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author and essayist, writes monthly for The Progressive.