THE BANAL CONSENSUS THAT’S WAGING (AND WINNING) A CULTURE WAR AGAINST TALENT AND INDIVIDUAL MERIT

From innocuous roots in late 1940s postmodernism has spread like a steady but relentless virus. It’s become a kind of formalized absolution from having to measure one’s personal (or group) creativity against challenging standards exemplified by peers past and present.

It has calcified an implicit lack of ambition (and talent) into a consensus assault on individual merit, patiently but systematically building a citation-legitimized exclusion of all forms of non-conformity.

The postmodern networks of weaponized influence are both cynical and smart, directing the most merciless attacks on the most dangerous of targets: original genius in art and disruptive, uncompromising creativity in science. If these trends continue unchecked — and there’s no sign of organized resistance — the culture war will soon reach a catastrophic and possibly irreparable coda.

POSTMODERNIST MODUS OPERANDI

Postmodernism was once a dubious but honest niche in literary academia. It has become a deeply entrenched behemoth, growing in dominance and gorging itself on appropriated cultural, academic, sociopolitical and intellectual life in a dozen “enlightened” countries. Self-regulating, robust by taking over bricks-and-mortar institutions, agile by dint of wirearchy structure organized by ideology in controlled conditions, fed by a bottomless well of intellectual vanity, professional and personal self-interest; and, nowadays, under the surface but motivating every ambitious maneuver, there’s a genuine cold-blooded taste for power.

THE ORIGIN OF THE POSTMODERNIST POISON

We can’t all understand the calculus of relativity or the complex nuance of Shakespeare. Postmodernism has expanded precisely because it serves as a simpatico doctrine of the mediocre many.

In a nutshell, that’s the temptation of all doctrines promising a path of less resistance. But unless we want most of Western society to reverse blithely and irreperably into a terminal decline, the temptation must be resisted. Denied. To do this, both the roots (postmodernism) and the metastasized hydra of anti-individual anti-intellectual anti-talent assault must be exposed; and eradicated. Urgently.

But let’s be clear.

Individuals aspiring to creative or scientific genius will mostly fall short of the standard. How could they not? Most of us will have to take comfort from the nobility of struggle, the uncertainty of inspiration, yadda yadda. It might be scant comfort were it not also the truth of ambition and the stakes of sincere aspiration. Truth counts, you see.

Some, like intelligent university professors, will have the critical thinking necessary to see failure as their own business. Some may recognize in themselves personal shortcomings or, most dishearteningly, an insurmountable lack of talent. It’s a bitter pill, but existence doesn’t owe us equity. Justice is for humans to impose on existence, not the other way around. There were, are and weill be many capable, educated minds — including other university professors — unable or unwilling to take defeat on the chin.

How could these scholars, accustomed to success, reconcile something so all-compassing as having fallen short of genius when it’s the most precious ineffable thing they worship over all other human characteristics? In the turbid wake of Modernist accomplishment, a critical mass of academics declined the bitter pill. Postmodernism became the answer.

Postmodernism began as a confederation of means to an end: the formalization of a widespread refusal to face up to having falling short built into a consensus by dint of so many smart men and women in the universities refusing at around the same time. Collegiate training made light work of organizing an evolution to critical theory and from these roots, postmodernism has served generations of post-war career academics — and their students, and their successors.

Just as the Nazis had bastardized Nietzsche to justify Aryan “eugenics” so had the proto-postmodernists corrupted Heidegger’s rollback of temporal ontology (as the defining way to think about the world). The academy played to its strengths, legitimizing and citing and cross-pollinating a rejection of genius into a rejection of the significance of individual human beings, genius included. Death of the author went from blastula to embryo. The creative process was the creative process. Jung provided ammunition for a jargon of the collective unconscious — classicists would have airily called it the fickle muse — the more window dressing, the merrier.

Poison had entered the veins of post-war academia. It has been spreading and metastasizing ever since.

POSTMODERNISM METASTASIZES INTO ACADEMIC EPIDEMIC

Career academics, their fragile conceits needing a system of protection against the genius of modernism, were driven to postmodernist ideas which they quickly and self-servingly appropriated. Back in the 1950s “Beat” poetry was emerging at Columbia University and it clashes almost immediately with the academic authorities. Colleges closed ranks to dispossess the new wave. Some version of this dichotomy played out in a hundred academies: tenured professors in the halls, Modernist genius in portraits on their walls, the vital individuals who might’ve been their natural successors shut out, excluded, forced outside the institutions.

Battle lines were rapidly arranged. Postmodernism formalized into the armor chosen by the academy. The shut out was successful and it didn’t take long for the new ideology to spread.

The early motivation of academics may have been wrong, but to counteract the poison we mustn’t see it as an incomprehensible weakness of character. Perhaps if it had admitted a little nuance — like humility — the future would have been different. It wasn’t able to do this, however. Committed to a reductive perversion of intellectual relativism, quick to define the opposition in countercultural terms, increasingly partnered with state expediency, things only got worse. The next generations of academics were well-organized cherry-picked successors, greedy for authority but trained to play by the rules. Professional iconoclasts, some in pursuit of misguided but sincere notions of democratizing the academy, established hostility to received wisdom and acted — in teams — to bring to heel outlier excellence. What began as a movement contained within a handful of university faculties marched forth like a new religion.

Postmodernism is particularly pernicious, once sufficiently widespread, because it gives faithful advocates a multipurpose toolkit designed perfectly for its continued spread and consolidation of degraded culture. The toolkit is subtle and subject-specific, cynical and utilitarian, honed — ironically — by thousands of extremely clever social engineers, the most effective personnel of corporate academia. It covers jargon and linguistics, provides litmus tests to gauge friends and enemies, divide-and-conquer transformation of universities into safe zones promising accreditation and widespread publicity so long as there’s no gainsay of postmodernism’s unwritten rules. Like in a masonic lodge, would-be employees of current postmodernist doctrine (and goals) receive informal schooling in identifying one another and formal education in suitable, utilitarian techniques.

POSTMODERNISM ALLIES WITH NEOLIBERAL FREEMASONRY

With a few exceptions, it had been left to America to take the lead in cutting edge academic and cultural continuity from the 1950s until as late as the 1970s. A diaspora of talent from Europe had bolstered its indigenous faculties before the Second World War, and this continued once it was over. The professionalization of American universities as vocational training rather than a nurturing of autonomous intellectuals brought market forces into the global academy as never before. Europe and now East Asia may no longer be behind North America, but the parochial dollars-and-cents ambitions of the baby boomer period have impressed deeply on the institutions. Postmodernism was and is the mechanism of delivery, free-market neoliberalism the lubricating economics, knowledge serving consumerism the marketing ambition of its moving parts.

But why is this particular club so bad? Isn’t postmodern neoliberalism better than communism or totalitarian fascism, for instance? Couldn’t postmodernist principles be liberating for young minds stifled by the straightjacket canon of past generations? These questions could have been debated until the 1980s, though even then the postmodern authorities were children of diminished progenitors. Sadly, the nature of the temptation offered by today’s postmodernism is too strong for most to resist. Early postmodernists began as pale fire apologists, cowed by the very proximate challenge of modernist genius. The later gatekeepers were schooled from the outset to see the world through a lens pre-defined to obscure past genius — strip individuals through group identity conflations — and focus increasingly on well-branded more up-to-date alternatives that looked right and received official accreditation but were stripped clean of any off-narrative ambiguity.

Half a century later the postmodernist network is well established throughout the world, organized in a macrostructure that resembles — more than anything else — the cooperative imam-led cells of Islam than any prior cultural movement. The academy has been locked in a stranglehold in the same way as certain industries were dominated by secret freemason lodges. Outsiders, outliers, and would-be rebels can be pinpointed and delegitimized with remarkable precision, without compromising any individual mason. Moreover, there’s no need to instruct how to exculpate rebels as late as the time of their actual rebellion. Everyone in the lodge has the toolkit and already knows how to use it against objectionable targets, singling out early signs of trouble and reacting to quell problems long before any public manifestation.

“… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967)

TRUTH IS LIES — LOVE IS HATE — PEACE IS WAR — PLENTY IS STARVATION

The battle for the hearts and minds of the many academic institutions and a plethora of media outlets, print, radio, television, film was irreparably divisive by the end of the 1960s. Vietnam, hippy anti-nationalism and student protests against corporate consumerism (e.g. the Situationists, the Weather Underground) brought the power of the state into direct conflict with the individual. The timing was fortuitous and an ideological conflict already well developed within the universities made postmodernists natural and instructive bedfellows for those pushing the agenda of state authority. Both saw their chance: to permanently marginalize dissenters, including untrustworthy writers and auteurs and non-conformist professors; to train subsequent generations properly as ‘good’ future citizens, to nip any discord in the bud. Worst of all, anyone slipping through the net and presuming to exhibit genius out of context became a threat to the mainstream social order, same as those early ‘rebels’, subject to a takedown by every means available in the formidable state-sanctioned postmodernist playbook.

DEATH OF THE AUTHOR BECOMES MAINSTREAM PANDEMIC

The #metoo phenomenon is the latest diseased manifestation of the postmodernist toolkit. It was born of feminism and a genuinely authentic attack on misogyny and endemic patriarchy, turned into another way to bring down experts and excellence unwilling to conform to the postmodern dictates of entrenched groupthink — in this case selected by and aimed at dominating anything involving gender.

There are islands of resistance to postmodernism dotted around the academy, media and mainstream culture. There remain leftover schools of thought, created out of sincere, useful ideas and not seeking to feed the growing monolith, like structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. These more authentic strains in philosophy and literary theory went through their own smaller conflicts and in most cases ended defeated or compromised by the powers-that-be. Leading lights like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Noam Chomsky were marginalized in plain site, separated from the mainstream of the academy into esoteric ‘special’ departments — a standard measure in the postmodernist manual when dealing with intransigent voices grown too noisy to gag or too marketable to de-platform off the public stage.

The most expedient aspects of post-structuralism and, increasingly, any new idea cropping up in academic circles, are identified fast then, notwithstanding having to deal with those stubborn individuals refusing to bend the knee, censored of anything off-narrative and brought into the postmodernist mainstream. Post-structuralism was cannibalized into one of the most insidious movements of the latter culture war years: identity politics.

Feminism, civil rights, the fight against homophobia, legitimate movements all but in the hands of postmodern spin doctors were twisted to serve different goals and increase the firepower of the academy and its allies, the ambitious arbiters of culture. In fact, these particular appropriations have been the most significant criminal abuses of the postmodernist cabal.

The appropriation of feminism, sexuality and race should be a practical warning of the ultimate bankruptcy of postmodern ideology. Exceptional women or great gay artists or genius who happen to be non-white aren’t freed from the shackles of traditional racist, homophobic white male-privilege, to aspire to whatever greatness might be attained by their individual unfettered potential. Instead, this potential is cut away, just as it is with any other presumption of genius, not by legislated prejudice but by the infinitely more subtle methods of the neoliberal postmodern toolkit.

Women are demeaned into ciphers, gays are flatlined and remade as icons, all face no substance. Black writers, worst of all, are forced to be poster boys and poster girls, ring-fenced into representing only a narrow race-brand identity that’s more loathsome an apartheid than any township ghetto because it’s intellectual and cultural rather than just segregation of wealth and physical space.

Stereotypes that never represented reality become lowest common denominator polytypes on which an identity is anchored, and against which anyone presuming to be part of the group must be judged. Transgender communism is one such corollary of identity politics: children forced into binary choices because they’ve shown a certain preference, transgender adults tied to levels of ‘worth’ defined only by the extremes a person will go to fit the ‘trans’ identity monolith.

Crossover regions where multiple postmodern identities must reach consensus to occupy unchallenged are seamlessly integrated into their respective groupthink politics and, even here the difference between an authentic movement and an identity political oppression using divide and conquer is clear: mark the considered responses of genuine feminists like Germaine Greer versus the misrepresentation and standard teardown tactics of self-appointed transgender leaders.

At best the new oppression is coercive rather than violent, but great art and science is often inspired by oppression. It’s certainly always created by distinctive individuals and to be deprived of these outliers is to make a mediocre currency of great potential. It’s ironic that the casualties of this battle are the very people those advocating identity politics pay lip service to be freeing and defending.

“Great spirits have always encountered the most violent opposition from mediocre minds.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

WHERE DOES A “DEATH OF THE AUTEUR” PANDEMIC END?

Postmodernism has become ubiquitous, unarguably legitimate as it bears the stamp of academy credibility. It continues to spread from the institutions through society, by brigades of well-taught neo-masonic graduates. These days there’s only one line of defense against the self-serving end-game society continues to be driven towards and it must come from the independent individual.

The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

Roland Barthes (1915–1980)

The individual is problematic, however. Disorganized, unusual, independent, mostly atomized and often contrarian, the individual presents a disunited self-centered front — an easy target for patient groupthinkers — but it’s the only other game in town. Complete victory for the postmodernist cabal will mean a society without genius, truth subjugated to expediency, cookie-cutter people disallowed individuality and defined instead by a group identity that’s tantamount to living caricature. It’ll become a safe zone so widespread it looks the same as obsolescence and no-one left will be sufficiently ‘woke’ to notice.

Postmodernist generations pass the latest literary, linguistic and philosophical theory — especially in the early years' schools of thought coming out of France and Germany — through the prism of democratized merit and everyman relativism to construct an effective popular legitimacy serving the conceits of the tenured academy and their progeny. The career academic and journalist has an ever-evolving arsenal fit for the destruction of reputations and the exculpation of non-conforming genius. The success of this “death of the author” spin, cloaked in the complex language of post-structuralism and other extant obfuscating theory, gave the postmodernists a commanding position by the end of the 1960s. This hegemony expressed itself into mainstream culture through successive waves of graduates. Its advance towards total eclipse has not once been checked.

The strength of the postmodernist academy comes in having bound itself hand in glove with state authority, underpinning its propaganda by an intellectual neoliberalism sold to the prospective members and the public as responding to the vocational demands of the free market. Anything of substance seeking to thwart the academy or the increasingly polarising state narrative can be tarred with the ‘counter-culture’ brush, ornery youth ever the frontline victims (e.g. the beat generation, hippies, gender fluid glams, punks, crusties, environmentalists, libertarians, pacifists, new atheists, trolls, intellectual dark web personalities, etc). Soon anything off-narrative will be subject to the same process of rapid marginalization (in the case of individuals) and appropriation (in the case of movements).

What little resistance remained in the arts faculties was picked off in the post-Vietnam decades, neoliberalism and consumer capitalism became natural bedfellows with postmodernism in a way that solidified in the 80s. Entrenched interests integrated branding in the 90s and their rule sets became received wisdom — unquestioned, presumed part of the natural order — by the millennium. Small wonder this cynical cultural regulation adapted quickly to take hold of the internet as soon as it blew up. The ring-fencing of social media, turning it into a vehicle for population control with clever echo chamber isolation of contrarian thinkers, is a paradigm of adaptive big society power in action.

As any historian will affirm, there was no way postmodernist culture would allow itself to be challenged by changes to the dynamics of society. Vigilant, pro-active and anti-individual to the marrow, the mainstream must remain committed to proven methodologies. This is the state of society in 2020. They must keep outliers away from the public; and through technology this becomes possible, despite the interconnected nature of the online world. They can allow no genius to turn a platform into a pedestal. No expert can be given credible authority over truth, however, many facts might be marshalled in support.

The rotten core of the postmodernist movement has remained throughout, and these days it’s forced to inordinate lengths to prosecute absolute authority over its chosen territories. Methods have become more ruthless and its corrosive impact on Western culture grows more extreme each year. Today it weaponizes such awful characteristics as toxic envy, blind outrage and endemic narcissism. Mediocrity has been branded synonymous with common sense, conformity trained by an intellectual communism whose prime directive is the denial of individual free thought. Power dynamics are abused daily, inverting expertise to a sin, spinning traditions of excellence as oppressive patriarchy, individuality subsumed — whether you like it or not — into a ‘know your place’ identity politics. Outsiders, and transgressors, in particular, face dire potentially lifelong consequences.

“The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself.”

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)

The postmodernist end-game is achieved by default, using a mix of populism and passive aggression. There can be leaders in the postmodern paradigm state, but these must be caricatures, salaried celebrities or pliable accidents of ethnicity. What used to be meritocracy is turned into a lottery — and lottery is an easier sell to a public convinced of its own worth and conveniently conditioned against critical thinking and inconvenient self-examination.

Death of the author — the pro-active exclusion of individual genius — postmodernism wed with neoliberal identity politics results in an everyday life lived as if it was a reality show — authenticity kept ever at arm's length — and it’s an easy fit with slogans of democracy and disempowering parables inculcating universal median values. Ironically, equality itself has become a twisted principle: not so much equality of outcome, which is commonly and correctly singled out as impossibly injudicious, but more disastrously an equality of process. It’s nothing less than a cultural coma.

The whole warped system is delivered efficiently through, appropriately enough, exploitation of the very worst of human traits: vanity, egoism, outrage and opinion over tolerance and complex nuance. It’s a recipe for mediocrity, a disconnection with centuries of intellectual and cultural tradition that may never be restored. At worst, it’s a dictatorship by the mob imposed by kangaroo courts of public opinion, a descent into intellectual and cultural barbarism. In this multifarious world, if we accept the broad sweep of modern history as a symbiosis of the enlightenment West and the utilitarian East, the former is at risk of becoming permanently obsolete.

“…new liberalism’s antipathy to superior statesmen and to human excellence is peculiarly zealous, parochial, and antiphilosophic.”

Robert Faulkner (The Case for Greatness, 2008 — Yale University Press, p. 210)

AS A SIDEBAR…

For a few hundred years Western traditions have nurtured individualism, freedom and — until recently -encouraged a diverse meritocracy of creative talent to flourish, despite conventional inertia driving an anti-intellectual Dunning-Kruger conservatism. Anglo-American culture, in particular, has a history of safeguarding original thought, nurturing reactionary genius in the face of the docile Judeo-Christian mainstream. All of this is at risk if the postmodernist social order achieves complete victory.

“There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

Leonard Cohen

Soon enough the voices of protest and their cries of “Shakespeare” “Socrates” “Rimbaud” “Tchaikovsky” “Bacon” “Bacon” “Newton” “Mozart” “Jefferson” “Darwin” “Sartre” “Dumas” “Einstein” “Eliot” “King” “Kant” “Clemens” “Keynes” “Tesla” “Feynman” “Proust” “Goethe” “Johnson” “Bronte” “Curie” “Nietzsche” “Fellini” “Marx” “Locke” “Penrose” “Kerouac” “Kafka” “Orwell” “Swift” “Dostoevsky” “Lincoln” “Voltaire” “Aristotle” “Chaucer” “Boccaccio” “ Blake” “Poe” “Davis” “Liebniz” “Dante” “Dali” “Gallileo” “Milton” “Ali” “Ibsen” “Michelangelo” “Shelley” “Heidegger” “Rilke” “Freud” “Fermi” “Marlowe” “O’Neal” “Gogol” “da Vinci” “Auden” “Thoreau” “Tolkien” “Turing” “Rodin” “Turner” “Jung” “Picasso” “Kusturica” “Chomsky” will die away. What remains will be the echoing hubbub of an outraged mob that amounts to nothing more than an irrelevant cultural silence.

Selected bibliography (English translations):

Background is a scattergun of philosophy, psychology, history and political theory. Medium is a repository for articles, essays and transcripts — rough’n’ready.