In defence of postmodernism

‘In the past, when you needed information, you went to an encyclopaedia… and you could trust that the information would be true.’ Or so says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s famed education guru, best-known as the co-ordinator of the PISA testing process which provides a comparative metric analysis of national education systems. The target in his sights today is “fake news”. According to a BBC report, Schleicher is adding an extra category to the test in 2018, one which goes beyond the existing ones of auditing students’ abilities in maths, literacy and science – namely a new category of ‘global competency’. This, he hopes, will incentivise teaching activities which will enable children and young people to spot the ‘truth’.

Schleicher isn’t known for his nuanced ideas on education. His crude views on what constitutes an education and their implications for PISA have faced criticism on numerous occasions. As such, his wholly unproblematic view of knowledge – that there was a halcyon age when a curious pupil could leaf through an encyclopaedia and feel safe in its truth – shouldn’t be surprising. But he’s not alone in diagnosing an absence of ‘truth’ as the characteristic problem of our contemporary politics; in a recent opinion piece for the BBC, journalist Peter Pomerantsev claimed that the election of Donald Trump was the manifestation of the ‘rise of the postmodern politician’, a politician who denies ‘facts’ and consequently is able to reconstruct the public sphere in such a fashion as to deny the possibility for rational debate. Pomerantsev isn’t the first to point the finger of culpability for the Trump administration at ‘postmodernist’ thinkers. The historian Sir Richard Evans, long a trenchant critic of what he characterises as ‘hyper-relativism and scepticism’ recently claimed on Twitter that the architects of the Trump administration were at university during the 1980s and 1990s when, he believed, such postmodern fallacies were in the ascendancy. Little surprise then that a President with a clear disdain for evidence should be supported by staffers who unashamedly proffer ‘alternative facts’.

Yet whilst it is vitally important to understand the Trump phenomenon and to resist it, the opportunistic character assassination of a diverse range of epistemological approaches is hardly the answer. To describe thinkers as varied as Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and White as being one and the same, substitutable and amounting to a singular interpretation of the social world, is naïve in the extreme, perhaps wilfully so. But more than this, the singular interpretation offered – that all such thinkers simply don’t believe in the possibility of facts – is plain wrong. And that’s a fact.

Foucault, for instance, never denied ‘facts’. His project as an historian evolved over time. A famous injunction of his was, after all, ‘do not ask me to remain the same’. It shifted between archaeological investigations of the social world at historically specific points, in short, delineating what concepts and ideas were possible at a given social/political/cultural moment, to genealogical approaches which sought to write a ‘history of the present’ through a discontinuous reading of the past. But either way, it couldn’t work without ‘facts’. Discipline and Punish, arguably Foucault’s most well-known work in the English-speaking world, rested on historical accounts and evidence, from its opening vignette on the execution of Damiens to its legendary account of Bentham’s Panopticon. Foucault’s ambition was to expose the ‘truths’ around these formations, and how they operationalised and actualised decentred ideas of power.

If Foucault held something in common with Lyotard et al., it was a scepticism about narratives; not facts themselves but how we aggregate them, the stories we tell built on them, and the meanings we inscribe on them. Most of all, for Foucault, this was about trying to understand the constitutive nature of power and knowledge, which weren’t, in his view, separate entities but reflexively-linked. Grand accounts of ‘truth’ could be problematic; normative ideas of reason as truth could deem unreason madness; so ran the thesis of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation. Foucualt’s account of these processes relied on facts; what was in question for him was the nature of assumption.

It’s hardly as if problems with ‘truth’ began with the ’68 generation, either. In her 1949 classic The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir opened her account with a forensic deconstruction of how supposedly-objective science had in fact sought over the centuries to enshrine the politics of gender in sex. Scientists characterised the female body in masculine terms, perceiving female sex organs as a negation of the male. Adam’s rib again, but with latinisms. That begs the question of at what point could Schleicher’s pupil open the encyclopaedia and feel safe? Could a female child open an encyclopaedia at any point up to the present and feel sure that the knowledges offered were remorselessly true, and not couched in terms of patriarchy and oppression? Hardly.

In fact, philosophical scepticism about narrative – as opposed to fact – is a perfect rejoinder to Trumpism. Trumpism is built on nativist fantasy which doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. As the Irish Taioseach, Enda Kenny, reminded Trump this past week, the United States is a nation of immigrants; it is not and has never been a society forged behind a wall. Trump’s narrative – his ‘truth’ – speaks to particular constituencies in the United States (particularly amongst whites) which are opposed to globalisation and, to some extent, the relative decline of their historical supremacy. Using Foucauldian tools or dispositions (for example) to critique the nature of Trumpism opens up new sites for resistance; and it does so rooted in a keen awareness of the problems and dangers inherent in proposing one universal narrative.

In the United Kingdom, the victory of the Leave vote in the referendum on membership of the European Union has also been characterised by some as evidence of the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics. This account has it that Brexiteers simply wouldn’t listen to ‘reason’, they wouldn’t engage with ‘evidence’, they had no respect for ‘experts’. It’s hard to disagree with much of this analysis. Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, and a prominent spokesman for Vote Leave, infamously commented during the campaign that Britain had ‘had enough of experts’. In his tenure as Education Secretary, he had worked strenuously to rewrite the history curriculum in Britain’s schools to emphasise ‘our island story’, shifting the balance away from situating the UK in global perspective and instead emphasising (in Evans’ penetrating phrase) ‘the wonderfulness of us’. Following the Brexit decision, the Leave lobby has, if anything, become still-more vociferous in its advocacy of British exceptionalism. Melanie Phillips, in an historically-illiterate piece in The Times, argued for Britain as ‘the authentic nation’, trumping ‘nationalist claims’ in Scotland and Ireland. For Phillips, ‘Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct, the imagined community that falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation.’

Cherry-picking from Jonathan Clark, she claims that ‘Britain was not invented; it developed’. In this she agrees with the former UK Independence Party MP and Vote Leave spokesman Douglas Carswell. Commenting on Twitter, Carswell told the historian Tom Holland that ‘UK fused organically from below. EU a construct of elites from above.’ Both Phillips and Carswell seem to have ignored the findings of historians from Linda Colley to Richard Weight on the nature of the British ‘project’, not to mention discussions in cultural studies such as the reflection by David McCrone that Britain is in truth not a nation-state at all, but a ‘state-nation masquerading as a nation-state…[with] a political superstructure grafted onto the civil societies or nations which to a greater or lesser extent remained self-governing in their domestic or “low” politics.’

Brexiteers selectively aggregating facts to create spurious interpretations which (to borrow McCrone’s term) ‘masquerade’ as ‘truth’ isn’t the child of some cardboard-cut out version of postmodernism. It isn’t novel, either; the creation of metanarratives that empower some whilst disenfranchising others is, in fact, characteristic of political discourses. So too is the appeal to ‘emotion’ over ‘reason’, as the former BBC Director General Mark Thompson notes in his recent book, Enough Said. Both are classic staples of demagoguery.

It has long been the task of the political Left in Western societies to challenge these narratives using whatever analytical tools were available to them at the time. It was not for nothing that the British Labour politician Aneurin Bevan once said ‘This is my truth – now tell me yours’. For political freedom to be possible, meaning-making and truth must be democratised, not left in the hands of oligarchies who seek to impose more or less cohesive and exclusionary narratives to disenfranchise and exclude.

Dissension has necessitated dissenting from the ‘truth’ legitimising social and political systems; from the Diggers of the English Civil War to the feminist campaign for the franchise to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s to LGBTQ rights campaigns in the present. Resisting accounts of mandated oppression from the Great Chain of Being to the normative assumptions underpinning legal constructs of gender has necessitated contesting extant ‘truths’. But in this contestation what is offered are alternative ‘truths’, not ‘alternative facts’; a pluralistic range of interpretations more in keeping with the diversity of human possibility and liberty, not less.

Schleicher then, should be wary of trying to resolve the world’s problems with an easily-metric-ed reversion to encyclopaedia knowledges. The ‘classic history’ that Michael Gove promoted – ‘Our Island Story’ – in the UK was one which valorised Britannia as a sceptred isle which civilised the world in ‘true’ Christian style. History is central to these debates as it is (as Foucault recognised) the ultimate appeal to authority. Humans are historical beings, grounded in the reality of historical time and experience, drawing on memory, individual and social, to inform their decisions and mores. How the truths of that history are thus constituted is of paramount importance for their ability to frame discursive vocabularies which permit political possibilities in the future. They may agree that President Kennedy was shot on the 22nd November 1963; but they may disagree on what that meant. That is as it should be.

In Britain, Brexit has, at least in part, been the culmination of processes which have attempt to reconstruct popular memory in terms of a certain historical ‘truth’. The island nation, ‘standing alone’, is a fantasy; bedecked with the imagery of the Spitfire above the White Cliffs of Dover, it ignores the fact that 1940 was an exception, rather than the rule, in British history. It has not been the norm of the British historical experience for Britain to cut herself off from the world, for good or ill. Equally, Britain’s engagement with the wider world has hardly been benign; to embrace a sense of political victimhood as a consequence of imperial decline and the fear of globalisation is at best an historical irony. Popular memory matters and going back to encyclopaedia entries is not the solution to the problems of the age of neonationalism. As Marc Ferro remarked decades ago, history does have its users and abusers.

What, then, is called for is more difficult than a simple reconstruction of authority in the form of definitive textbooks or encyclopaedias. The truth should never be ‘fixed’, or ossified. What is required is the continuous contestation of oppressive and tyrannical narratives on the part of citizens. Whilst Schleicher isn’t wrong to claim that space needs to be opened up for this in public education systems, where he fails is in thinking that the answer to a problem created by metrics is to introduce another metric. For the metrics of neoliberalism betray their own tyrannical truth; only that which can be counted matters. Counting the evidence of the ‘right kind of history’, as David Cannadine termed it, isn’t the answer. In fact, if Schleicher wanted to make a real attempt to foster criticality, he might instead abolish PISA altogether. PISA, after all, only counts ‘facts’, though it embodies them with particular meanings. The challenge of the neonationalist age really lies in interpretation. Donald Trump does not need the authority of a philosopher to lie; he just lies. He knows that those who want to believe his lies will choose to. By freeing schools from the normative expectations of neoliberalism – that the ultimate aim of education is to succeed in a ‘global race’ framed in economic terms – Schleicher could help do something meaningful in drawing the sting of neonationalism. He could help create the space for self-expression, freedom of thought, truth-telling and meaning-making.

The attack on ‘postmodernism’ is misplaced, as is the normative expectation that there is always a simple truth to be found. The legacy of the much-traduced thinkers of the ’68 generation is that the personal is political, that narratives must be contested, that we have a responsibility to ourselves to pursue an ethics of liberation. That’s hard. It means an active citizenship that many of us have eschewed in favour of the self-reinforcement of social media and the desire for the comfort of economic security. It’s also based on a naïve view of history as progress. We are not entitled to live in societies which are free, democratic, tolerant or open. These things exist only so long as we fight for them and make them real in the everyday. They will never be as free, tolerant or open as they could be. Indeed, our citizenship and subjectivity are defined in the act of critique.

This was something that was known to post-war existentialists and educationalists, but which has been lost through the reification of the market and the etiolation of the individual into the consumer. The expansion of the universities in the West in the post-war period was driven by a conviction amongst some that they should be wilfully out of step with society – that they should not merely reflect society’s opinions but seek to change and inform them. But the technologies of discipline imposed by the governmentality of neoliberalism (to borrow some Foucauldian terms) have reduced the ability of the individual to resist authoritarian politics. They have decentred the individual, creating a nexus of consumption-as-identity that denudes the political subject of authority, that has reduced the sense of the politically-possible in the minds of many, even in universities themselves. As willing sufferers, many of us have embraced these technologies of discipline in metric form to validate ourselves, just as pupils and students are expected to validate themselves in test-after-test-after-test. Neoliberalism made neonationalism possible. That’s my interpretation, which you are free to contest. But simply appealing to ‘authority’ is no answer to either, as authorities are always-situated. As such, the theories of the thinkers of ’68 and beyond have never been more necessary. They empower us to fight those who would offer fraudulent interpretations, or who would promote interpretations as fact. But they would not have us simply write a new encyclopaedia. As ever, resistance is much more than that.