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The Linguistic Turn: On “Cynical Theories,” Part 3

The postmodern emphasis on language derives from the evolution of hi-tech liberal capitalist societies.

In the first installment of this review of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories, I argued that their use of the metaphor of a virus to describe the emergence and spread of postmodern thought is interesting in two respects. First, it implies that the latter is an external invader that bears no essential relation to the liberal society that they believe it threatens, even though their own account suggests otherwise: that critical theory is an exaggerated version of the virtues (such as “skepticism”) they attribute to liberalism. Second, their reliance on metaphor is in tension with their assertion that language can straightforwardly characterize reality.

In the second installment, I noted that despite their objection to the “postmodern theme” of the “power of language,” they attribute a great deal of power to language, since they believe that a handful of not particularly widely read books have single-handedly undermined the basis of liberal democracy. Returning to the seminal account of the “postmodern condition” elaborated by Jean-François Lyotard, I attempted to offer a more materially grounded account of the rise of the body of thought Pluckrose and Lindsay are describing. In the process, I challenged their assumptions about the process by which “postmodern” ideas have spread.

Here, I will continue to make the case that the “postmodern principles” and “themes” Pluckrose and Lindsay are targeting derive directly from the internal evolution of the scientifically and technologically advanced liberal capitalist societies they set out to defend. I will begin by returning to one of their “postmodern themes,” which I also addressed previously: “the power of language.”

“Under postmodernism,” they state, “many ideas that had previously been regarded as objectively true came to be seen as mere constructions of language.” They appear to be bemused and baffled by the “reject[ion of] the commonsense idea that words refer straightforwardly to things in the real world,” and make no effort to understand why anyone might come to question this idea, much less why it might lose traction more broadly. Instead, they resort to pathologization, attributing to postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida an “obsession with language” and a “neurotic postmodern fixation upon words.” Again, their indifference to causal explanation is striking: given that such an emphasis on language has become widespread, one might imagine that, even if it is as delusional as they say, they would be interested in the conditions that have made people embrace it. But no such curiosity is evident in their account.

A more precise term for the emphasis on the “power of language” Pluckrose and Lindsay are describing is “the linguistic turn,” a phrase popularized by the philosopher Richard Rorty. Numerous disciplines, beginning with philosophy and spreading across the humanities, became increasingly focused on language over the course of the twentieth century, especially its latter half. Yet this shift in emphasis did not begin with postmodern thought, but with philosophers like Frege and Russell, and somewhat later in French structuralism, which attempted to apply the scientific advances achieved in modern linguistics to a broad array of cultural phenomena by way of various disciplines. The centering of language, then, began not with skeptics and relativists, but with thinkers who viewed the systematic study of language as a means of elaborating a more rigorous methodology in philosophy and the “human sciences.”

This fact is significant because the “linguistic turn” also closely tracks the scientific and technological advances of the twentieth century and the broader economic and social changes they enabled. As discussed previously, Lyotard refers to the “computerization” of knowledge and the economy over the course of postwar period the main source of the “postmodern condition.” In essence, the latter phrase is another way of referring to what others have dubbed the “information society.” As Lyotard writes: “in a society whose communication component is becoming more prominent day by day, both as a reality and as an issue it is clear that language assumes a new importance.” This development, he says, is closely related to the expansion of language-oriented fields of research, including “phonology and theories of linguistics, problems of communication and cybernetics, modern theories of algebra and informatics, computers and their languages, problems of translation and the search for areas of compatibility among computer languages, problems of information storage and data banks, telematics and the perfection of intelligent terminals…”

The “linguistic turn,” then, has its basis in shifts in social and economic relations, and has far broader intellectual effects than the emergence of the specific academic theories that usually fall under the heading of “postmodernism.” The “power of language” has become a central theme in an era when language, in the general sense of the term, plays a key role in the production process. To regard a thinker like Derrida’s preoccupation with language as a personal idiosyncrasy, as Pluckrose and Lindsay seem to do, is to ignore this context.

We do not need to look to a “postmodern” thinker like Lyotard to find versions of this observation. Back in 1991, the liberal economist and Robert Reich coined the term “symbolic analysts” to describe the rising white-collar workforce of the post-industrial economy. The point of Reich’s use of this term is that a variety of professions, from graphic designers to engineers to lawyers to financial analysts to newspaper editors, centrally involve the manipulation of symbols. In a computerized society oriented toward the production and circulation of information, Reich argued, those who acquired symbol-manipulation skills would be rewarded, while those engaged in manual work would decline in status. Furthermore, as the acceleration of these trends magnified inequality, these skilled workers would pull away more and more from the rest of the population, economically and culturally. Reich called this the “secession of the symbolic analysts.”

In his 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites, historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch builds on Reich’s analysis of this class. He writes that “[t]hey live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality—’hyperreality,’ as it has been called.” In a brief but suggestive passage, Lasch links the popularization of “postmodernist thought” to “the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control (unavoidably, everything familiar and reassuring as well) has been rigorously excluded.” He writes that as a result, “the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.” Lasch’s diagnosis roughly accords with that of “postmodernists” like Lyotard and especially Baudrillard, who was not attempting to promote “hyperreality” but to chart its emergence out of a specific set of economic and technological arrangements. Lasch, however, was perhaps too certain that those outside of the elite sphere would avoid being subsumed within this “artificial environment.”

Since Lasch’s death in the same year Revolt appeared, two developments have made his book prophetic in unanticipated ways. First of all, almost all of us have become “symbolic analysts” in our free time even if not in our working lives. That is, the computerized environment that was largely restricted to white-collar offices in the 1980s and early 1990s has become the universal domain of the screen, in which we all exist during work, leisure, or both. Second, the prospects of younger entrants to the “symbolic analyst” class have declined. As Julius Krein documents, this decline correlates with the increasing radicalization of political discourse among the highly educated. Unsurprisingly, if we take seriously Lasch’s account of the submersion in artificiality the computerization of experience entails, this radicalization has been inflected by the “postmodern themes” Pluckrose and Lindsay document. This is not simply because these ideas have been widely taught in universities, as they seem to think, but because they are intuitive to people whose lives take place online.

In Life on the Screen, a prescient book that appeared just a year after Lasch’s Revolt, sociologist Sherry Turkle anticipated this ongoing process. Her book was one of the first to focus on how the internet was shifting people’s experiences of social life and individual identity. She was writing a decade before the mass adoption of social media, but her analysis centers on one of its forerunners, Multi-User Domains (MUDs). She writes that in such spaces, “technology is bringing a set of ideas associated with postmodernism . . . into everyday life.” Echoing the link between computerization and the linguistic turn proposed previously, she states: “In my computer-mediated worlds, the self is multiple, fluid, and constituted in interaction with machine connections; it is made and transformed by language.” “Computers,” she concludes, “embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth.” When Turkle wrote these statements in 1995, she was describing what were still relatively niche experiences. Today, what Turkle calls the “multiple, fluid self made by language” is the main forms in which most of us present ourselves to the world.

With this background in mind, the emergence of the “postmodern themes” documented by Pluckrose and Lindsay looks more like an effect of profound material, social, and economic changes than of the influence of a few dozen philosophers. The wide resonance of those themes helps account for the popularity of those philosophers’ ideas, which have furnished a portion of the educated class with a kind of mythology of the information age. However, the same themes have also pervaded the culture at large in different forms. Witness, for instance, the popularity of films and shows that expose reality and the self as artificial fabrications, beginning with The Matrix and The Truman Show. Or consider, again, the anti-vaccination and climate change denial movements, which indulge in quasi-Foucauldian suspicions about the relationship between power and knowledge, in the absence of any meaningful influence from Foucault or any other theorist.

I concur with Pluckrose and Lindsay that it is worth trying to explain how ideas that first appeared in rather obscure and difficult academic tracts came to be widely assumed and deployed in culture war debates. However, my guiding assumption here has been that the dissemination and reception of these tracts is only part of the story. We must also try to explain what made the ideas intuitively appealing to so many people, most of whom have never read more than a handful of memeified slogans from any work of “Theory,” if even that. Furthermore, we should try to make sense of why equivalent sensibilities have appeared among eclectic groups that have little to no exposure to “Theory.” The answer, I suggest, is that “postmodernism” is just one attempt to account for and respond to the material, social, and economic conditions of the post-industrial information society, the latest iteration of which is the social media realm in which the culture war largely unfolds.

1 reply on “The Linguistic Turn: On “Cynical Theories,” Part 3”

Excellent series of articles. The Pluckrose book is idealistic in the sense that it doesn’t take into account the material/economic changes that have actually created the post-Fordist, postmodern condition, which is reflected in, rather than created by, identity politics and the like (not that these don’t then also get incorporated into the economy, the “theories” people now see their lives through (“I’m an X set of identities”) is now at least an element of Facebook, etc’s microtargeted marketing money machine)

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