An Introduction to Postmodernist Thinkers & Themes: Watch Primers on Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze & More

For decades we’ve been hear­ing about the prob­lem of Post­mod­ernism. I sup­pose I get, in a vague sort of way, what peo­ple mean by this: moral rel­a­tivism, mis­trust of objec­tiv­i­ty and sci­en­tif­ic, reli­gious, and oth­er author­i­ties, “increduli­ty toward meta­nar­ra­tives,” as Jean-Fran­cois Lyotard defined the term in The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion in 1979.

Don’t we find much of this rad­i­cal skep­ti­cism in the work of David Hume? The Cyn­ics? Or Niet­zsche (a Post­mod­ern ances­tor, but also claimed by Prag­ma­tist and Exis­ten­tial­ist thinkers)? A prob­lem with blan­ket cri­tiques of Post­mod­ernism is that the word has nev­er rep­re­sent­ed a cohe­sive school of thought (nor, for that mat­ter, has Exis­ten­tial­ism).

The term derives from an archi­tec­tur­al move­ment of the 1960s that is, itself, impos­si­ble to clear­ly define since it inten­tion­al­ly grafts togeth­er approach­es and tra­di­tions in exper­i­ments that cel­e­brate kitschy excess­es of style and that defy nar­ra­tive coher­ence. Post­mod­ern archi­tec­ture gave us mod­ern malls and mul­ti­plex­es, aid­ing and abet­ting late cap­i­tal­ist sprawl. (But this is anoth­er sto­ry….)

Lyotard cer­tain­ly fit the stereo­type of the Post­mod­ernist philoso­pher, with his life­time of social­ist activism and the­o­ret­i­cal hybrids of Marx and Freud. He gets lit­tle cred­it, though he put the term in cir­cu­la­tion in phi­los­o­phy. Instead, Michel Fou­cault is often cit­ed as a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence, though he reject­ed the cat­e­go­riza­tion and thought of him­self as a mod­ernist.

Many a sur­vey of Post­mod­ern thought, such as this YouTube video series by Then & Now, begins with Fou­cault. The series cov­ers oth­er thinkers we don’t always see put in this box, like soci­ol­o­gist Pierre Bour­dieu and 19th cen­tu­ry Russ­ian nov­el­ist Fyo­dor Dos­to­evsky. Niet­zsche appears, of course, in two parts, as well as Eve Sedg­wick, Jacques Der­ri­da and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari.

But in many ways, Fou­cault may be the best place to begin. As pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy Scott Moore writes:

If post­mod­ernism is under­stood as a rejec­tion of… an Enlight­en­ment point of view… one that is char­ac­ter­ized by a detached, autonomous, objec­tive ratio­nal­i­ty… then Fou­cault is sure­ly a post­mod­ernist. Turn­ing Bacon on his head, Fou­cault affirmed that it is not the case that knowl­edge is pow­er, but pow­er is knowl­edge. Mean­ing, those peo­ple who have pow­er (social, polit­i­cal, etc.) always decide what will or will not be count­ed as “knowl­edge.”

Unlike, how­ev­er, many lat­er cul­tur­al the­o­rists who inher­it­ed the cum­ber­some label, Fou­cault looked not to the present or the future in his work, but to the past, re-inter­pret­ing pri­ma­ry sources from ancient Rome to the post-WWI glob­al eco­nom­ic order, through sev­er­al dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pli­nary lens­es.

Then & Now cre­ator Lewis Waller takes a post­mod­ern approach to this series him­self. In the video “Detach­ment, Objec­tiv­i­ty, Imag­i­na­tion: A Cri­tique,” he makes a case that Roman­tic his­to­ri­ans like Michelet, Thier­ry, and Car­lyle had a “bet­ter under­stand­ing of the real­i­ty of the historian’s craft than the sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly mind­ed did.” It’s a con­trar­i­an argu­ment that begins with Sir Wal­ter Scott and that may unset­tle your pre­con­cep­tions of what the catch-all term Post­mod­ernism might include.

See more videos from the series above and watch all of them on YouTube. You may or may not feel like you have a bet­ter sense of what Post­mod­ernism means in gen­er­al. If we take it as short­hand for the loss of unchal­lenged het­eropa­tri­ar­chal pow­er, then it is, I sup­pose, a prob­lem for many peo­ple. If we take it to mean a mode of thought that “prob­lema­tizes” seem­ing­ly sim­ple con­cepts we mis­take for the very struc­ture of real­i­ty, then it “is also an atti­tude,” writes Moore, “and it has been most art­ful­ly prac­ticed by Socrates, St. Augus­tine, Kierkegaard, Wittgen­stein, and a host of oth­ers.”

Maybe Post­mod­ernism has appeared in every peri­od of philo­soph­i­cal and lit­er­ary his­to­ry. Only it hasn’t always been so… well… so over­whelm­ing­ly French, which could have had more than a lit­tle to do with its neg­a­tive rep­u­ta­tion in Anglo­phone coun­tries. Put your meta­nar­ra­tives aside and learn more here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What the The­o­ry?: Watch Short Intro­duc­tions to Post­mod­ernism, Semi­otics, Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, Marx­ist Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism and More

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

Hear Hours of Lec­tures by Michel Fou­cault: Record­ed in Eng­lish & French Between 1961 and 1983

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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