J. Goldberg: Obama the Postmodernist

[Photo titled “Ah the Excesses the Postmodernism” by Flickr user vidiot under Creative Commons License]

Jonah actually could have made an interesting point in this article since he has a beginning of a point in this piece arguing Obama is a postmodernist.

It is correct to call Obama the first pomo candidate (and possible president). The piece however goes downhill due to Goldberg’s definition of what postmodernism is:

An explosive fad in the 1980s, postmodernism was and is an enormous intellectual hustle in which left-wing intellectuals take crowbars and pick axes to anything having to do with the civilizational Mount Rushmore of Dead White European Males.

It gets only marginally better in the next graph:

“PoMos” hold that there is no such thing as capital-T “Truth.” There are only lower-case “truths.” Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false, are really just ways for those Pernicious Pale Patriarchs to keep the Coalition of the Oppressed in their place. In the PoMo’s telling, reality is “socially constructed.” And so the PoMos seek to tear down everything that “privileges” the powerful over the powerless and to replace it with new truths more to their liking.

Now it should be said up front that Goldberg writes in bad faith whenever it comes to liberals. It doesn’t matter whether he actually believes that crap he wrote or doesn’t, since the result is the same. Also, his position (such as it is) is dependent on him not knowing these things in any subtle depth (pro/con) as that would wreck his career and his whole theory. i.e. He doesn’t want to get too smart for his own good. [And for the record, I made a good faith effort to read his book. But it was just so sloppily done it’s not worth wasting my time. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.]

But anyway, acting as if Goldberg were actually serious about this discussion, the following points could be made. [Much more after the jump]…

Obviously defining postmodernism as any one thing is a fool’s errand. There are too many strands, thinkers, and emphases for it to ever really be pinned down to one thing. But there are some recognizable postmodern names and ideas Goldberg is forgetting.

As to JG’s contention that pomo is about no Truth only truths that wouldn’t cover clearly postmodern thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre. He is postmodern insofar as he accepts Nietzsche’s criticism of modernity (i.e. Kant) that reason was never fully able to give a justification via reason for its existence. [Nietzsche and later Foucault would point out it’s a little too convenient that reason thinks reason is the only rationality around].

Or as Gadamer (another arguably postmodern conservative like AM) would say the prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against all prejudices. That itself being a prejudice of course. And not a very good one either.

So for MacIntyre while he accepts the postmodern critique of modernity he doesn’t follow the path of Nietzsche, Foucault, et. al (Baudr., Deleuze,) sliding towards moral relativism and the deployment of power given no solid moral grounding. MacI. actually suggests we go back to the classical Aristotelian/medieval understanding of virtue ethics. How’s that for being out to destroy the White Patriarchs of yore? Gadamer’s work is predicated on trying to restore a legitimacy to authority and tradition. Yes Western tradition especially.

Or Thomas Kuhn whose work on paradigm shifts represented what one can legitimately call postmodern science–and yet even Kuhn still believed in objective scientific truth just ones that evolve. [a point missed by Goldberg’s T truth versus t truths.]

Or even Habermas who accepts many of the criticisms of postmodernity (including all the French thinkers listed above) but sees their own answers as falling victim to many of the diseases they correctly identify in others. So he grounds the lasting truths of modernity in a different (intersubjective) notion of reason.

So first off, Goldberg’s definition of postmodernity is deeply flawed and myopic. Granted his pop understanding of postmodernism is what many others (I suppose) mean by the term and from those within this strand of postmodernism (i.e. post-structuralism) then they may assume his definition of postmodernity is in fact the correct/only one.

In other words, Goldberg’s definition of pomo as beginning in the 80s means (if he actually knows what he’s talking about which again I’m pretty sure he doesn’t) authors like Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Deleuze. What is probably best termed the genealogical strand of postmodernism–again flowing from Nietzsche.

The issue isn’t that truth is socially constructed (because that is shared with the thinkers named above) but that it is constructed in fundamentally irrational and unjust ways. And even that isn’t wrong so much as only a slice of the pie that is taken by said (mostly originally French) thinkers to be the whole baked good itself.

Now it’s true I don’t see any evidence Obama is some MacIntyrean, Gadamerian, or Habermasian. Goldberg does name one name Derrick Bell and one strain of genealogical postmodernism (Critical Race Theory) as having an influence on Obama. There are ways in which you can hear echoes of these ideas in Obama and other ways in which not. [I thought he was a bargainer not a black nationalist Marxist crypto-Muslim?].

e.g. Regarding Lyotard, hard to make the case Obama represents the end of meta-narratives. The guy is a walking, talking meta-narrative. He begins every one of his speeches with references to the Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the early progressives, abolitionists, and says this movement is the continuation of those previous ones (all fit into one scheme).

As to Obama being for tearing down all of Western civilization hard to argue that when the guy can’t shut up about how much he loves America. Again, I thought the conservative talking point was that Obama was a “bargainer” anyway?

A more fruitful line of approach to explore a postmodern slant to Obama would involve 1)his age/generational cohort (he is clearly the un-Boomer) 2)his hybridized identity/racial background 3)that he choose his own race/culture 4)personal and personalizing way in which he interprets traditions as giving him a sense of identity.

The third is particularly interesting and supremely postmodern. I mean really think about that for a second. The guy choose his culture/racial identification. That’s wild whatever else you may think of it. It also is a common characteristic of what the scholars call (postmodern) consumer society.

The fourth is one which the McCain Campaign uses to hammer Obama as narcissistic. As The One or more interested in winning the presidency for his own ego than for the country (ready to lose a war for his ego rather than lose the presidency).

But McCain is equally open to criticisms of the egoity of his own conversion to America. For McCain his idea of America (“city of a hill” “beacon of hope”) was what gave have hope and turned around the life of a spoiled, rich flyboy boozing it up with strippers and crashing some planes. It moved him from his self-perceived narcissism to his care for/duty to the Great Other (America) and saved him. Classic AA (i.e. modernist) kinda language as Matt Welch points out.

The primary way that legitimacy is gained through a postmodern world is through personal experience and a sense of authenticity. Not (as in modernity/conservative Boomerism) through one’s respected place in the hierarchy, i.e. having earned one’s position. That’s why McCain gets so burned by Obama and why young people have supported by huge margins Obama over the two Boomers (McCain or Clinton). They both are operating out of an entirely different sense of how one gains standing. As I’ve said before, it only adds another layer of possible misinterpretation and anger insofar as one is old and white and the other younger and black and that what is really a modern/postmodern argument gets feed through a racial lens and becomes McCain saying, “Obama is uppity.” And that getting interpreted as clearly a throwback racially. Whereas McCain is saying Obama is uppity but in terms of the generational worldviews not race.

So with McCain you see how he can only interpret Obama saying America made his life possible as narcissism (the great evil in McCain’s system). For McCain Obama is saying America exists for Obama rather than (as with McCain) I exist for America. i.e. McCain is interpreting Obama as the older (i.e. younger) McCain.

But Obama is actually talking (in postmodern-ese) the language of bricolage. He’s a guy whose youth is an experience of dislocation–as opposed to McCain adolescent blue blood rebellion against conformity & uber-stability–and one of trying to find meaning and stable identity. Moving from country to country with different dads (or no dad) to his racial mixture, not being totally accepted as either white or black. The idea of America then for Obama is (similar to McCain) a place of refugee. Now its clear they have different ideas of America as I’ve said before but I find it extremely wrongheaded and offensive (though unavoidable) that McCain interprets what is a legitimate form of appropriation/adherence to (an) American dream as narcissism.

That’s not to say the postmodern elements of Obama don’t come without their own downsides, blind spots, and problems (they do), but just that this cultural shift is increasingly happening and will only continue to grow in influence. I think the better way to deal is to try to flow with the stream and try to guide it in what we think to be beneficial ways instead of standing on the sidelines in judgment and coming across (as has McCain) as a jealous, angry, petulant, cranky old S.O.B.


Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Chris at Indistinct Union notes, it may be correct to call Obama the first post-modern candidate, but one needn’t necessarily […]

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