Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s new book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody argues that certain academic theories are having an enormous impact on contemporary society. As they write, “Theory has broken the bounds of academia and exerts a profound influence on our culture.” They capitalize “Theory” to refer to a specific area of theorizing that is often treated as synonymous with the term. This is the sort of theory they call “postmodernism.”
They characterize “postmodernism” as a “fast-evolving virus” which was incubated in academia over several decades until it “mutated” enough to find willing hosts in larger and larger portions of the general population. This metaphor raises as many questions as it answers. Where do new viruses come from? As we’ve been reminded recently, they usually cross over from one species to another. So presumably this virus originates outside of its host (liberal society). Moreover, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s reference to “mutation” focuses on the evolution of the virus itself, but leaves out the question of why some populations end up serving as hosts for a particular virus at a particular time, while others do not. In addition, a virus doesn’t spread entirely on its own: it may be helped, for example, by the human-built transportation infrastructure that carries its hosts from one continent to another and thus enables it to find new host populations. Surely, explaining the spread of a mind virus would require attention to analogous factors. But they receive scant attention here.
Another statement from the book extends the biological metaphor more broadly: “Liberal systems like regulated capitalism, republican democracy, and science resolve conflicts by subjecting human economies, societies, and knowledge production to evolutionary processes that — over time and with persistent effort — produce reliable societies, governments, and provisionally true statements about the world” (emphasis mine). Combining this passage with the virus one, we might understand their basic account as follows: “liberalism” generates a healthy self-regulating ecosystem, but a virus external to that system has invaded it and is threatening to destroy it. But the virus is not, in fact, external: by Pluckrose and Lindsay’s account, it first arose in France, a capitalist democracy that has long been a center of scientific research, and it spread via universities, lodestars of the liberal system. So: how does this system give rise to and serve as host for something that threatens it with destruction?
In an adjacent passage, Pluckrose and Lindsay write that “[l]iberalism and science” (note that here science is now parallel to liberalism, rather than a subset of it as in the previous passage) “are self-skeptical rather than self-certain, by design. This is a reasoned — not a radical — skepticism. They put the empirical first, rather than the theoretical. They are self-correcting.” Here they run up against, and quickly brush aside, a complicating factor: the cardinal virtue of liberalism and science, “skepticism,” turns out to coincide with one of the central vices they have identified in “Theory”: its “skepticism.” Elsewhere they write: “postmodernism didn’t invent skepticism: it perverted it into a corrosive cynicism.” The virus metaphor might imply that “postmodernism” comes from the outside, but now it turns out that it is a perversion of an element from the inside of the system.
Perhaps a more apt metaphor for what the authors of Cynical Theories are attempting to describe would be an autoimmune disorder. Their claim, after all, is that liberalism is a self-regulating system whose first line of defense is “skepticism.” Yet “skepticism” is also the very thing that is now attacking the system in the form of “Theory.” Just as autoimmune responses cause the immune system to attack the body’s own organs as if they were invaders, postmodern “skepticism” attacks the core convictions of the liberalism out of which it emerged, which they enumerate as: “a belief in objective knowledge, universal truth, science (or evidence more broadly) as a method for obtaining objective knowledge, the power of reason, the ability to communicate straightforwardly via language, a universal human nature, and individualism.” However, Pluckrose and Lindsay sometimes attribute a sort of autoimmune function to the “[s]cientific and other forms of liberal reasoning” they are eager to defend, as when they write that the latter “apply a productive and actionable form of skepticism to everything, including themselves.” So how do we draw a clear line between this healthy autoimmunity and its perverted opposite?
If one of the tenets of liberalism they are trying to defend is “the ability to communicate straightforwardly via language,” the centrality of the “virus” metaphor calls into question their own faithfulness to this tenet. Rhetoricians have long defined metaphor as the opposite of “straightforward” speech: it’s necessarily indirect because it describes one thing by way of another. There are two layers of complication at work in the virus metaphor, then. On one hand, it designates “Theory” as an outsider to the liberal order, even though it seems to have arisen within it. Furthermore, in deploying metaphor at all, the authors rely on a non-“straightforward” mode of speech to defend (among other things) “the ability to communicate straightforwardly.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay identify several “postmodern themes,” two of which are “the blurring of conceptual boundaries” and “the power of language to construct reality.” I have been trying to suggest here that escaping these “themes” is not quite as simple as they seem to believe. The crucial role of the “virus” metaphor in their argument asserts a clear inside (liberalism) and a clear outside (Theory) that their own account elsewhere breaks down, by showing that “skepticism” and a “critical” sensibility pertain both to the virus and its host. Thus, they inadvertently generate just the sort of “blurring of conceptual boundaries” (between inside and outside, virus and host) that their book aims to forestall. Furthermore, the reliance on metaphor complicates their overt commitment to “straightforward,” i.e. purely referential or denotative language. Metaphor, after all, might be understood as a key instance of “the power of language to construct reality.” (This is roughly the argument of a famous and not particularly “postmodern” book, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.)
There is another sense in which Pluckrose and Lindsay attribute as much power to language as their “postmodern” antagonists allegedly do. They claim that “Theory,” which originated in France and crossed over to US universities in the 1970s and 1980s, has brought about a variety of contemporary socio-cultural phenomena, such as an increasing skepticism of science, hostility to open debate and free speech, and the importance of “identity” to current politics. “Theory” exists in the form of texts. Their claim, then, is that these texts were the cause of these multifarious social and political effects. In other words, language has reshaped social reality. But how can that be, if language is supposed to be less powerful than “Theorists” claim?
How exactly does “Theory” affect society? Pluckrose and Lindsay’s reliance on the “virus” metaphor compensates for the lack of a precise account of this causal process. In the next installment, I will propose an alternative approach to the rise and impact of “Theory.” I will treat it not as an isolated causal agent, but as a manifestation of and a response to ongoing social and technological processes that have, in turn, rendered its diagnoses plausible to a large number of people.