French Postmodern Chickens Come Home to Roost

Recently, a New York Times article quoted a French government official: “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.’’ As the article went on to explain, “prominent [French] intellectuals have banded together against what they regard as contamination by the out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture.”

It’s tempting here to channel the faux outrage of the French policeman in the movie “Casablanca.” I’m shocked, shocked to learn that postmodern ideas born and bred in the rich soil of the French intelligentsia have mutated into something unsavory. Who could have predicted that divorcing truth from reality would lead to even more divisive and destructive ideas?

The path from Parisian literary theorists puzzling over the power of words to the not-so-friendly neighborhood activist outraged by pronouns is pretty clear. Reacting to the overconfidence and over-promises of Modernism and the Enlightenment, French intellectuals in the mid-20th Century like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida proposed a way of thinking that was skeptical and largely cynical. Postmodernism took observable parts of human life, particularly cultural biases and the tendency of powerful people to oppress their neighbors and built an elaborate philosophical system around them.

The end result was a worldview that denied that humans could have any real access to truth. Instead, all we have is words by which we attempt to describe reality and communicate. Our words, however, are hopelessly burdened with our culturally-determined biases shaped by the powerful. Our words so shape the way we see the world, postmodernism suggested, that we really have no access to reality at all. We are all trapped in our perspectives.

The spectrum of postmodern thought vacillated between an uncertainty of knowledge to a focus on power. Describing this way of thinking, Angela Franks recently described in First Things, “we are not controlled by a puppet master. Rather, we live in a vast network of demands, commandments, inducements, sorting mechanisms, disciplines, and more. ‘Power’ has no center. It is the aggregate of multiple, shifting relationships.”

Other than much of the popular music of the 1990s (from Kurt Cobain to Eminem), postmodernism remained largely a scholar’s game. Professors and students might tut-tut about there being nothing outside the text but, for ideas to escape the academy for the real world, humans need more than abstractions.

It was the evolution of Critical Theory that gave the fundamental assumptions of postmodernism flesh. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay describe in their book, Cynical Theories, what began as a new way to interpret texts mutated into a quest “to reconstruct society in the image of an ideology.” Proponents of Critical Theory are as adamantly against the powerful imposing their views on the oppressed as any postmodernist was. However, with a moralistic streak, they’ve added the demand that all views must be conformed to theirs, and they will use their newly acquired cultural power to punish anyone who fails to comply. 

What we’re left with are directionless, insatiable demands to combat injustice and oppression but without any means to say one moral claim is better than another. Attempts to find or forge common ground between people or communities are cynically seen as a quest for power and oppression.

In the end, as fun as it is to tease our friends in France about the ideas that were birthed on their shores, they are right about the dangers of Critical Theory, especially to those core French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity and their hope in the universal rights of a universal humanity.

Of course, like postmodernism and Critical Theory, Christianity also objects to failed promises of the Enlightenment and Modernism. Christianity, however, is hopeful, not cynical. Rather than reducing life to a constant battle for status and power, Christianity offers the only historically solid ground for unity or progress. In the imago Dei, Christianity tethers universal human dignity and justice. In the doctrine of the Fall, we make sense of power and oppression. Within the framework of redemption, we have hope for a life propelled by love, not universal, unending, unwinnable competition.

This framework tasks Christ-followers to work for justice but to be driven by mercy. We are called to love our neighbor, not see them as the hated “other.” In other words, the Christian ethic provides the passion and foundation for a better humanity and a more just world, which postmodernism and its offspring sought, but could never find.

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