(An edited translation of this text has in the Danish publication Atlas.)
This month on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________. In today’s piece Macon Holt, with his “profound ignorance of language and context”, is against some Danish Liberals or, as he refers to them in the title, “The Priests of Truth”. Basically, it is about the lazy demonization poststructuralism and postmodernism in the media by those with something to gain by brushing such notions aside. But the story “really” starts back on the 23rd June 2016.
I remember the day of the Brexit vote, I was in Denmark but constantly checking British media, curious about what was happening in my country and quietly confident that the result would be in favour, if only by a hair, of remain. This blinded me to the reality that Leave was destined for victory. Not because of the metastasis of inequality or how capitalism’s engine of creative destruction had, in recent years, only ever delivered the destruction to the UK, or the casual demonization of the EU by politicians of all stripes, looking for a patsy, but, much to my surprise, because the leave voters had recently been caught in the miasma of poststructuralist theory.
Looking back now, I remember the pictures of people lining up for the polls in derelict deindustrialised northern towns and the nostalgic little villages of the home counties, all clutching books to their chest. Books like Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Michel Foucault’s lectures The Birth of Biopolitics and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari. On the streets of Britain that day, there were more pages of post-structuralist thought in the hands of leave voters than had ever actually been printed…
A member of the arrogant liberal (in the inaccurate US sense) media elite approached a declared leave voter, in the hope of passively pouring ridicule on them for the sake of producing a clip of web-only content. The Journalist, the worst kind of person there is, asked his mark why she had voted for leave despite the dire economic predictions from the experts? I expected to hear a blend of polite xenophobia, nostalgic patriotism and fanciful economics. Instead, she replied;
“Such predictions are themselves predicated on a kind of knowledge that is contingent on the existing power relations qua the generalised conditions of racist, patriarchal, or more properly phallogocentric, oppression. The action we take today is performative, in that it will affect the world qua the world and, thus, destabilise the epistemological framework upon which the premise of your question depends, thus rendering it moot.”
Both the journalist and I were horrified by this outburst. I, for one, didn’t even really understand it, so I tried to dismiss it as fake news. The next morning, however, I woke to find that the feeling of horror had engulfed me entirely. The relativists had taken over.
Now, that story about Brexit is not true, but it is apparently the position of Mia Amalie Holstein from the economically liberal (in the Ayn Rand sense) Danish think tank, CEPOS 1. Put simply (and not the through the frame of a satirical fabricated memory), Holstein argues that the influence of poststructuralist theory on the political left has eroded society’s concept of truth and paved the way for rightwing populism. So, the blame rests not with the way in which commerce, technology and media have fermented and destabilized our information sources. Nor with the way that nearly four decades of increasingly neoliberal economic policies have subjected social cohesion and personal identity to the whims of the market, but with some unpopular, difficult to read books.
I think the “poststructuralism leads to rightwing populism” logic stems from a misunderstanding of what poststructuralist theory claims and attempts to do. It does not argue that there is not truth. If you think this is what is claimed in Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault or Butler, then you have not understood what you have read.
A similar argument was made by the writer and historian Helen Pluckrose in March this year and the idea has become something of a trope. Some of this critique needs a considered response. However, we mainly seem to have modern day attempts to reenact the science wars of the 90s, also known as the Sokal affair, as if that was a valid way in which to prove anything other than the pressure on academics to bolster their CVs.
I think the “poststructuralism leads to rightwing populism” logic stems from a misunderstanding of what poststructuralist theory claims and attempts to do. It does not argue that there is not truth. If you think this is what is claimed in Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault or Butler, then you have not understood what you have read. In general, the claim of these thinkers is merely that we haven’t the tools to access and understand truth, and that we should be suspicious of those who obstinately claim to have them. These are thinkers who caution against the immodesty that appears in science once it receives validation in the marketplace, that warn us of the hubris bureaucracies and point towards the contingency of who we think we are. I think it is this last point that can be the most troubling for those in the post-industrial west, as even seemingly simple questions like, who wrote this book? become vexed. As Deleuze and Guattari begin A Thousand Plateaus: “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several there was already quite a crowd”.
That said, the main problem I have with Holstein’s argument is a temporal one, in that it seems to put the cart before the horse 2. Are we to believe that the concerns of post-structuralism (or postmodernism) emerged spontaneously as a contagious intellectual vapour from the second-hand smoke of a Parisian café? From there, did these obscure books, of interest only to a sliver of the intellectuals in the humanities, find their way into the consciousness of everyone who witnessed Vietnam become the first televised war, which ultimately undermined the authority of the state? Was the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) so forceful in its argument of the problems with metanarratives that the metanarrative of Soviet communism had to collapse? Did the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard found MTV? Or is it more likely that these thinkers, who were at a particular historical moment and in a particular place in the world, observed something happening within culture and modernity, without the aid of tenured professors, and they then set about developing the tools to describe it?
Admittedly, the nature of this work, its inaccessibility and its slippery use of concepts, can, to some extent, be blamed on the toxic careerist atmosphere that can often corrupt academia. But if that was grounds enough to cast out a form of knowledge production, then almost nothing produced by a think tank could retain its validity.
In fact, without the tools of post-structuralism, how would Holstein explain the recent piece in Politiken by the anthropologist and Liberal (also in the Ayn Rand sense) Alliance member, Dennis Nørmark? In his piece, Nørmark argued that while the left has been obsessing over little things like how to stop the extra judicial killing of people of colour, to stop people being criminalised for fleeing war and to make sure the those in the LGBTQ+ community and women are treated as human beings, the right has discovered that their future profits will depend on the institution of things like universal basic income.
Nørmark’s argument hinges upon a poststructuralist methodology. He frames the debate with a remark from the chief economist of Saxo Bank, Steen Jakobsen, who, to the surprise of many, stated that Marxism was essential for understanding the present moment. This is clearly a moment of the Barthesian (another french postmodernist) death of the author, where the intention behind the text has no bearing on its reading and application. Marx never meant for Banks to use his work to stay a step ahead of the revolution. What’s more, if we add to that the opacity of his argument, which simultaneously holds that everything the left has ever done has been an impediment to progress, while at the same time it’s great that the neoliberal right is now doing all those same things; we find in Nørmark, an inescapably nebulous piece of text, worthy of Derrida.
Of course, it must be noted that, by virtue of the neoliberal right approving of anything, an interpretation of Nørmark’s piece as a poststructuralist is, of course, disingenuous. At its core, Nørmark’s is a modernist argument as it holds to the idea that the truth is knowable and can be fully instrumentalized. Rather than the truth we find in philosophy, which is a notion of depth and complexity, the neoliberal right reduces truth to something as banal to whatever the market will, at present, tolerate.
I don’t buy the claim that post-structuralist thought undermines the concept of truth. Rather I think these theories attempts to protect it from the dubious claims of those who would equate it with convenient things. Things like the market, the will of the state or even the will of the people for that matter.
Here though, I must agree with Jakobsen. Marxist theory has some really interesting things to say about the imperatives of markets, chief among them being their ambivalence towards human life. There are case studies in Marx’s Capital vol.1 that contain recipes, devised by capitalists, for a gruel to feed workers that would allow the owners to lower the workers’ wages. But, most relevant to the discussion here are the dynamics around mechanisation. Put simply, Marx argues, that once a machine’s efficiency at producing value is such that not to purchase it would loose the capitalist money, only then would the capitalist spend the money to buy the machine. This is usually the point at which it has become cheaper than employing workers.
This is what I read when Nørmark cites the fact that the world economic forum at Davos has recently listed inequality as a subject that requires an urgent solution. The instability that inequality ferments will affect the bottom line of the global elite and perhaps put them in personal danger. In the words of the economist Mark Blyth, the Hamptons are not a defensible position. So, while there is, right now, talk about the need to use “machines” like universal basic income to solve this threat of inequality, the logic of capital may well in the end settle on a different more even efficient and affordable “machine” to deal with the fleshy components of the system.
When I consider these two liberal pieces together, what begins to surface for me is the real motivation they reveal for insisting on truth as a fixed, firm and simple concept. Without the appearance of a concept that can transcend time, space and power, the liberal framework literally becomes incoherent. Their framework requires things like identity, in the sense of those who agree to the conditions of a contract, to be fixed and from that things like property and ownership can be structured in a market. A market, which as mentioned already, is ambivalent to the lives of humans. Because while liberals (neo or classical) need capitalism and its markets, capitalism no longer needs liberals. I’ll concede that capitalism happens to have brought more people out of poverty than any other social system, but when your points of comparison are feudalism and soviet communism, whoop de do.
That said, I don’t buy the claim that post-structuralist thought undermines the concept of truth. Rather I think these theories attempts to protect it from the dubious claims of those who would equate it with convenient things. Things like the market, the will of the state or even the will of the people for that matter.
The way in which this trope is surfacing now makes me deeply suspicious. I wonder if the crisis of truth, presented by the present post-truth media discourse, appears as an opportunity to the neoliberal right. Afterall, their doctrines dictate that one must never let a serious crisis go to waste. If we consider the emergence of this trope in Danish discourse alongside the attempts of the Liberal Alliance members of the Danish government to close down the feminist library Kvinfo, then we can see at the very least a desire to shape the discourse of truth, once this crisis has passed. This is a role that was traditionally performed, before the disruptive forces of capital were released, by priests
Perhaps because of the strong tradition in French culture of anti-ecclesiasticism, a trope common among post-structuralists writers is a deep suspicion of the role of priests. Franco Berardi, a student and friend of Deleuze and Guattari, argues that today the role of the priest is filled by the economist, a profession still dominated by a neoliberal consensus. So when a member of the neoliberal right tells me that certain books and ideas are dangerous, or that certain fields of enquiry are propaganda, I find it difficult to see past their clerical finery.
- This punch line owes a huge debt to the British comedian Stewart Lee’s story about meeting the former PM David Cameron at university. This did not take place. Likewise, another debt is owed to the recent video from the Onion featuring a Trump voter rapt with guilt about his vote having now read 800 pages of queer feminist theory. ↩
- Or, to quote Alexander Buk-Swienty, quoting Žižek, quoting an old USSR joke “in that it seems too focused on the what the worker might be sneaking out in his wheelbarrow and so fail to notice it is wheelbarrows he’s stealing” ↩