A Postmortem on Postmodernism

[Back in 2014, I organized a workshop here at Williams College on Theory After Postmodernism. Having gotten The Myth of Disenchantment off my desk, I’ve returned to my manuscript project (“Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism“) which directly focuses on that subject. Although my comments from the workshop probably won’t make it into the new manuscript, I thought my opening remarks were worth posting here for those interested. I’ve made just a few modest changes.]

In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a catastrophe afflicting European intellectual and cultural life, and he argued that global capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalisms had produced an ethical vacuum. Moreover, he faulted the European philosophical academy for its inability to produce a sufficiently robust moral philosophy to resist the relativizing onslaught. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist had spawned a new type of person, stating: “The postmodern man is an encrusted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism.” While the prose is rather florid, Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch, especially by connecting the postmodern with nihilism and a pervasive ethical disaster, and it is not hard to find thinkers who use similar terms to describe the current era as being in a “postmodern crisis.”[i]

The problem is that Pannwitz wrote this account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. Nor was Pannwitz the only one. The first English book with “Postmodernism” in its title came out in 1926. Indeed, like the almost imperceptible tremors that anticipate a major earthquake, tantalizing references to the “postmodern” or “postmodernists” (Sp. postmodernista) began appearing more than a half century before the term would attain common currency in the 1970s.[ii]

Criticizingpostmodernism” is far from novel. On strictly philological grounds, what these examples show is that the term “postmodern” became lexically available shortly after 1901 when variants on the term “pre-modern” appeared and came into common usage in a number of European linguistic repertoires.[iii] By becoming the quintessential periodization, “modernity” was read as a fundamental rupture from the past, but accordingly it became possible to imagine its future eclipse.

I have another project [“The Myth of Disenchantment”] that challenges notions of “modernity” as rupture,[iv] but what I’d like to do this morning is talk about the function of “postmodernism” in the contemporary Euro-American academy. So while you eat your bagels and drink your coffee, I want to warm up our workshop by sorting through a host of terminology—from deconstruction to poststructuralism to postmodernism and then gesturing toward a simple argument—that no matter how you consider it, the “postmodern” period is over and the central theoretical commitments we associate with “postmodernism” have collapsed. In this respect, I’d like to begin with an autopsy to figure out what postmodernism was, which should help us think about where we should be heading.

[To read more, follow me over the fold]



Given that “poststructuralism” has swiftly dwindled in stature in recent decades, a number of scholars have been sifting through the rubble trying to make out just what happened.[i] In what follows I’d like to provide my own particular postmortem of postmodernism. At the start, I want to make some effort to specify my target or at the very least my terminological choice about the thing we are in the process of eclipsing.

Since the late 1970s, four terms have been increasingly used in the Anglophone academy to chart a semi-overlapping and inconsistent terrain: deconstruction, poststructuralism, “French theory,” and postmodernism. At first pass, this might seem to describe a set of expanding circles—deconstruction naming the work of Derrida and his followers; poststructuralism extending the category to other intellectuals critically responding to the work of Lévi-Strauss and Saussure, such as Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan; “French theory” might seem to expand this circle still further to net a greater range of French thinkers from Bourdieu to Deleuze to Laruelle; and finally, postmodernism might function as a periodization that brings in art and literature, and philosophically broadens out of from the Francophone context to include German and American thinkers like Adorno, Heidegger, and Richard Rorty.

On the ground, however, the terms cross and intersect. More importantly, each has its own problem and each has already been eclipsed. Let me make the case.


Because of its specificity and relationship to philosophy of language, deconstruction might seem to be our best bet to describe the main form of philosophical skepticism that supposedly once dominated the academy. It is sometimes charged that the main feature of all our various humanistic disciplines is that we have embraced “deconstructionism,” a mistake that has hastened our own decline.[ii] In this respect, Derrida, or the deconstructionist, became a handy, foreign scapegoat for problems in the American academy.

Indeed, “the deconstructionist” fleetingly appeared in the Anglophone world as a kind of stock character, a species of overeducated buffoon. He appears in the often-repeated joke about the Mafia boss who decided to study postmodernism. After years of reading Derrida and Foucault, the story goes, the boss stopped issuing orders no one could refuse and instead issued orders no one could understand. We see this figure again in Woody Allen’s 1997 film Deconstructing Harry; near the end of the film a literature student tells the authorial protagonist,

“Your books all seem a little sad on the surface, which is why I like deconstructing them. Because underneath, they’re real happy. It’s just that you don’t know it.” [iii]

Here the student’s claim that he has “deconstructed” the text to reveal a truth that eludes its author is being satirized as loopy.

More specifically, the term “deconstruction” is associated first and foremost with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. But as intellectual historians and indeed many of Derrida’s avowed successors have argued, most of what gets called deconstruction in the United States bears very little relation to any recognizably Derridean project and instead is closer to deconstruction’s subversion or parody.[iv] So it would seem that to think of deconstruction as ever having been dominant is to mistake a trendy term for a specific movement. To see the scholarly world as having passed through an era of deconstruction would seem to be overstating Derrida’s influence, while at the same time missing that most of what got called “deconstruction” came from elsewhere and in fact both preceded and postdated Derrida. Further, even the most vociferous of Derrida’s disciples would grant that his influence has waned. So even if some scholars were once deconstructionists, that era seems to have lapsed.



The Four Founders of Structuralism by Maurice Henry

So what about “poststructuralism? As David Foster Wallace put it, “a ‘poststructuralist’ is what you call a deconstructionist who doesn’t want to be called a deconstructionist.”[v]

Poststructuralism” appears in the United States to describe thinkers who were themselves originally considered the four founding fathers of structuralism: Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, (with Derrida taking the place previously occupied by Lévi-Strauss). What is more, I am hesitant to use the term “post” structuralism, because I think “Structuralism” never actually died. It merely found purchase in different corners of the academy under different names. This might sound counter-intuitive to those like myself who first encountered Derrida’s critique of structuralism as a teenager and only came to read Lévi-Strauss’s original project only in graduate school. Plus, it is often said that Derrida demolished structuralism in October, 1966. So how could structuralism have survived?

By way of recap, structuralism was supposed to have been a linguistic and anthropological mode of study modeled after the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and popularized by Roman Jacobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It was most centrally associated with the notion that the best way to understand culture and language was not by viewing them as undifferentiated wholes or atomized units, but instead by conceptualizing them in terms of their organizing systems of relations or “structures.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the terms “network” and “assemblage” have become increasingly popular in the work of scholars who identify as New Materialists, Deleuzians, Luhmannians, or even post-poststructuralists (I know this expression is odious).[vi] Ostensibly this represents the recent influence of network or complex systems theory on the humanities. Yet neither of these terms were foreign to the first generations of structuralists. Indeed Saussure uses the same term that we associate with Deleuze—“assemblage” (Fr. l’agencement) more times than he uses the word “structure.”[vii] Moreover, in the work of Lévi-Strauss both “network” (réseau) and “assemblage” functioned essentially as synonyms for the now discredited “structure.” After all, despite some misleading metaphors of structures as cages or laws, what Lévi-Strauss and company primarily meant by structure was a system of relations, basically a network of nodes. So the irony seems to be that scholars who would probably not be caught dead using terms like “structure” in a positive sense are in the process of reimporting terms like “network,” “system,” and “assemblage” to do all the old work of Lévi-Strauss’s “structure.”

Before I leave you with a misleading impression, I’ll admit that I’ve used notions of networks and assemblages in my own work. I’m not attacking the terms as such, but I want to note that they represent the persistence of “structure.” Just as many of the tenants of Lévi-Strauss’ versions of structuralism have persisted in heavily modified forms in disciplines like sociology, computer science, and linguistics, where they were waiting to return alongside the digital humanities, so indeed most so-called post-post-structuralisms are just structuralisms.[viii] In summary, with the internet, WWW, Facebook/“The Social Network,” world-systems theory and the like, we are anything but post-structural.[ix]


French theory” is probably the easiest of these terms to dispense with. Like the other terminology discussed above it contains an inherent contradiction. This is something I plan on exploring in greater detail in my current book project (“Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory After Postmodernism”) but intellectual historians such as François Cusset, François Dosse, and Susanne Lüdemann have variously emphasized the American heritage of much of what we take to be “French theory,” “post-structuralism,” and “deconstruction.”[x] Which is not to say that such things were invented whole-cloth in the United States. Rather, diverse thinkers from Europe (including scholars that came from different disciplines and sometimes even hated each other) were largely extracted from their political/cultural contexts and hybridized into what was often supposed to be one movement, and then deployed to meet the needs of preexisting intellectual trends already underway in the American academy. To exaggerate just a bit, French theory is American. More precisely, “French theory” is an American appropriation of continental theory reformulated to address preexisting domestic intellectual concerns that was then re-exported in a “Pizza effect-like” back to Western Europe.


Although the term “postmodern” had been around for decades, as a philosophical periodization it largely gained prominence because of Jean-François Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne (1979), in which the term described contemporary forms of skepticism.[xi] While a whole host of commentators have imagined that Lyotard’s work represented the backlash of the humanities against science, it is worth noting in passing that his argument was grounded in his reading of Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Gaston Bachelard—all philosophers of science.[xii] So, rather than attacking science from the outside, we can understand Lyotard to be reacting to an internal crisis within philosophy of science.

Nevertheless, “postmodernity” quickly exploded beyond Lyotard’s meaning and came to refer to everything from philosophy to advertising, painting to hip-hop. To be sure, it was generally used polemically to characterize something at least quasi-dystopian and it was rarely embraced by the thinkers who were themselves dubbed to be “postmodern” (neither Foucault nor Derrida embraced the term). But the striking thing is that the most influential texts of postmodernism—which includes not just Lyotard but the decades-old work by Vattimo, La fine della modernità (1985), Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), and Jameson, Postmodernism (1991)—were focused on artistic, philosophical and other cultural trends that were largely rooted in the 1970s and 1980s. The key thinkers associated with the movement, such as Foucault (born 1926) and Derrida (born 1930), were basically of the generation of James Dean (born 1931) and Elvis Presley (born 1935). There are cultural reasons Derrida rocked a pompadour for most of his life. More seriously, the classical studies of “postmodern” art and philosophy necessarily focused on novels, architecture, painting, poetry, and musical trends that have largely fallen out of vogue in the intervening years. For instance, the work of self-consciously “postmodern” authors (like Alain Robbe-Grillet) seems passé today and the same could be said about everything from postmodern architecture to music. So, it seems surprising that postmodernism continues to maintain a hold as a periodization. Restated, why hasn’t postmodernism gone the way of greasers and rockabilly?[xiii] Or even bell-bottoms and disco?

A lot has changed since the formulation of the postmodern canon in both cultural, political, artistic and philosophical movements. It is past time to update Lyotard, Vattimo, Harvey, and Jameson to make their work relevant for a new century. So I originally conceived of a version of this conference several years ago as an attempt to revisit some of those works and see what was still relevant. For instance, how has film, architecture, and literature changed since Jameson’s Postmodernism? The styles and works he discussed therein are no longer dominant. But then I felt the stakes were too small for such a reassessment. The issue for me is not how does the zeitgeist of current aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical trends gel together,[xiv] but how might we address the various philosophical problems and trends that have been labeled as “postmodernism”?

My sense is that the various disciplinary aesthetics and skepticisms conventionally bundled under the heading of postmodernism are on their way to the scrap heap. But it is worth noting that many of the ancillary movements associated with postmodernism—such as the canon debate in literature departments or the growth of critical race theory and gender studies—have been remarkably generative. Postmodernism, to continue using the term, did much that was good. In many respects the injection of fresh forms of skepticism into the academy helped to make way for counter-hegemonic fields. This might incline us to ask—why did postmodernism collapse?

There is not time here to provide a full account. Forgive the brevity of what follows. But any serious account of the rise and fall of postmodern skepticism is likely going to have to address the following:

The formation of a so-called poststructuralist or postmodern canon (note the irony of canonizing an anti-canon) happened first and foremost in the American academy and it was produced by drawing together European thinkers from different disciplinary backgrounds that were often opposed to each other (e.g. lumping Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault, and Derrida together). In hindsight, it is shocking how many anti-authoritarian tracts make their arguments by citing the authority of one French or German philosopher or the other. By way of context, it seems that French literature departments in the US were already primed to take on philosophy because of the literary forms of existentialism, and these departments soon became clearinghouses for forms of philosophizing that were ignored when analytic philosophy remade itself in the shadow of positivism. So one of the reasons that postmodernism might have been destined to fail is that it was necessarily contradictory and multiple (a fact later thinkers tried to make a virtue). For instance, it is harder than it appears at first pass to reconcile Foucauldian discourse-power with Derridean free play of signs.

The other, larger issue is that skepticism is not necessarily emancipatory. As Christian Thorne has argued persuasively, skepticism toward metaphysics, epistemology, and the foundations of knowledge has historically been used to justify conservativism and pragmatic authoritarianism. There is a long history of the existence of right-wing and even neo-liberal skeptics. Fox News is not exceptional in this respect. You might remember that it can be argued that Nietzsche, despite his recovery by the French left, was in his own day a kind of reactionary conservative (although this point is controversial). At the very least, the idea that one can make political progress merely by attacking knowledge itself seems naïve.

To be clear, unlike old-fashioned modernist critiques of postmodernism, I don’t think the forms of skepticism we associate with the movement are all bullshit. You’ll have to wait until I deliver my full-length paper later, but I think that mixed in with the posturing and the wordplay there are real epistemological issues that any serious future philosophical movement will need to address. To respond to postmodernism by retreating to a discredited scientism or fetishizing of facts is intellectually dishonest and a strategy that will fail in the long run.

All that said, so-called postmodern skepticism was often self-refuting or at the very least unable to justify itself. One could quite easily be skeptical of a skepticism that was often incapable of articulating its own value. To this we could add that the degree to which postmodern-influenced academic departments found it increasingly difficult to justify their positions vis-à-vis the university as a whole—for example, why should deconstruction be funded? (Part of the problem has to do with the corporatization of the university and not postmodernism itself, but still….) Moreover, as a number of commentators have observed, Dystopianism and pessimism make bad politics. Cynicism tends to undercut political action, and poststructuralism had no real way to resist neo-liberalism.

My comments so far have been very cursory and I could go on, but I’m sure that from here you will articulate your own reasons for rejecting or transcending “postmodernism.” It should be noted that postmodernism has been declared dead before, but usually without the suggestion of a credible alternative other than a retreat to a now-discredited scientism or positivism. Yet, it seems that for the first time in a long while there is a proliferation of thinkers who are doing their best to move past the postmodern condition.


To recap, I’ve been tracing a host of terms in an attempt to showcase their internal contradictions and their philosophical half-lives. Deconstruction perennially escaped a singular meaning, was never dominant, and has long since been eclipsed. Poststructuralism was always a misnomer insofar as structuralism never died so much as found a home in different parts of the academy. “French theory” was an American-French hybrid, having more to do with the intellectual needs of the Anglophone academy than anything dominant in France. And postmodernism had two functions: to signal artistic, architectural, literary, and philosophical movements that have long since been replaced, and to indicate an interlinking and contradictory set of skepticisms whose influence is also fading for both good and bad reasons.

To be sure, on certain fronts and in certain circles, scholars are still fighting the old battles, though in other corners of the academy one can begin to hear the first strings of the funeral dirge of postmodernism. As certain tides of skepticism recede, new philosophies are appearing on the conceptual horizon. Some of them are merely the rebranding of older discredited philosophies but some of them seem to me to show promise. Later in the workshop, I’ll put my cards on the table and tell you how I think we should proceed, but I want to emphasize that in many quarters my perspective remains open. So our task for today’s workshop will be to discuss, evaluate and reflect on new these philosophical currents. Let’s get started.

[i] For examples, see François Cusset, French theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis: postface inédite de l’auteur (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2010); and François Dosse, Histoire du Structuralisme (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 1991).

[ii] This is often a right-wing argument. But we can see a left-wing version in works such as Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition.

[iii] Allen’s usage of the term seems to have particularly irritated Jacques Derrida. (Dinitia Smith ‘Philosopher Gamely in Defense of His Ideas’, New York Times, 30 May 1998, sect B, p30).

[iv] Cusset 120-121.

[v] Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 140.

[vi] Josephson-Storm, “Derrida on the Network.” Still U.P. By way of network, in philosophy see Latour, Connolly, Bennett, Wolfe, in religious studies Orsi. The influence of Deleuze and Guattari on this terminology is clear.

[vii] Saussure uses “structure” three times and “assemblage” five times in Cours de linguistique générale REF> The translation of l’agencement as “assemblage” has to do with popularization of Deleuze and Gattari for whom it became a key technical term.

[viii] (Think Niklas Luhmann)

[ix] For a critique of the Network as egalitarian see Galloway and Thacker, The Exploit. For a critique of network ideology see, Pierre Musso Critique des réseaux.

[x] François Cusset, French theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003; François Dosse, Histoire du Structuralisme (2 vols). Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 1991; and Susanne Lüdemann, Jacques Derrida zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius-Verl, 2011.

[xi] As noted above the term had been used before, and Lyotard himself gave the following pedigree for his use of the term “postmodern:” “Alain Touraine, La Sociétepostindustrielle (Paris: Denoel, 1969); Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-IndustrialSociety (New York: Basic Books, 1973); Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Post Modern Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Michel Benamou and Charles Caramello, eds., Performance in Postmodern Culture(Wisconsin: Center for Twentieth Century Studies & Coda Press, 1977); M. Kohler, “Postmodernismus: ein begriffgeschichtlicher Uberblick,” Amerikastudien 22, 1 (1977).”

[xii] The famous critique by Sokal and company largely missed the boat.

[xiii] I’ll confess I’m a bit of a rockabilly fan myself.

[xiv] I tend to be less sympathetic to notions of zeitgeists. To borrow a phrase often attributed to William Gibson, “the future is not evenly distributed.”

[i] I also ended up using a version of this paragraph and the following paragraph in Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment, 307.

[ii] It is often claimed that John Watkins Chapman was the first to use the expression post-modern in 1870. For this claim, scholars usually cite Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (New York: Guilford Press, 1991), 5. But Best and Kellner’s source for this is Higgins, which only identifies the painter as “Chapman” and places the date as around 1880. Dick Higgins, A Dialectic of Centuries (New York: Printed Editions, 1978), 7. So barring further evidence, I think this attribution is likely specious. One of the first examples I’ve verified is: J. M. Thompson, “Post-Modernism,” Hibbert Journal 12, no. 4 (1914): 733– 45. In the Spanish-speaking world, there are provocative appearances of postmodernista in the Uruguayan poetry scene by at least as early as 1931. Carlos Reyles, Historia sintética de la

literatura uruguaya (Montevideo: A. Vila, 1931), 2:1.

[iii] Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment, 307.

[iv] I was then in what I thought was the late phase of “The Myth of Disenchantment,” but I underestimated the glacial pace of academic publishing.

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